The town was Utica, N.Y. The team was the Utica Blue Sox, an independent baseball team made up of leftover rookie-league prospects. The players with real potential, highly rated by their organizations, had been sent to minor league teams run by their organizations. The extra players, the long shots, were parceled out to independents like Utica. The longest of the long shots this year, 1985, was this Canadian kid, Walker.
He said "Mum" instead of "Mom" and added "eh?" at the end of his sentences and stuck out even in this diverse group of players. Canadian? He was big, at 6'2", 185 pounds, and had an earnestness and an athleticism about him, but had anyone ever been more befuddled by the sight of a thrown baseball? He swung as if he had never seen a thrown baseball. In fact, he never had seen a baseball thrown this way.
"I'd never seen a forkball, never seen a slider," he says. "I didn't know they existed. I had never really seen a good curveball. In Canada, as a kid, we'd play 10 baseball games a year. Fifteen, tops. Some pitchers had a thing they called a spinner, but nothing like this. Baseball just wasn't big. The weather was against it. Nobody ever played baseball thinking about making the major leagues. It was just a game, just something to do."
After the sad experience in Regina, Walker's interest in baseball had increased, but mostly as recreation. The following summer he had gone to Vancouver to play for one of the few area teams that played often, 72 games. Swinging hard at fastballs, he had learned he could hit them a long distance sometimes. This led to a spot on a Canadian junior team and an invitation to a national training camp in Saskatchewan. There were big league scouts at the camp, and when he used a wooden bat instead of the metal bats on hand, simply because he felt more comfortable with a wooden bat, the scouts noticed. When he hit one particularly long home run, well, he received an offer.
"Sure, we're always looking for the Canadian kid," Montreal Expo general manager Dan Duquette says. "But I'm sure we weren't thinking Larry was going to be anything great. He was signed before I got here, but I looked at his contract and I think it was a $1,500 bonus. Sending him to Utica certainly wasn't a good sign."
Walker's first real look at the mysteries of the thrown baseball came at the Expos' 1985 minor league camp. He swung at everything. He swung at balls that bounced on the plate. He swung at balls that bounced 10 feet in front of the plate. He told himself every pitch would be a fastball and swung accordingly. Once in a while he actually saw a fastball. There was a month and a half between camp and the start of Utica's season, and so he went home. He couldn't find a team to join for practice, since he now was a pro, so he played fast-pitch softball for a team sponsored by a bowling alley, to get ready for his big run at baseball. Not a great help.
The manager of the Blue Sox was Ken Brett, the former major league pitcher who is now a broadcaster for the California Angels. Brett was Walker's salvation. He said he was looking for athletes and wanted to teach them baseball. That was the role of the rookie leagues. He looked at Walker and didn't see the bad swings and the day-to-day befuddlement. He saw the large body and the coordination and the aggressiveness. He said Walker would play for him every day, even if Walker didn't get a hit during the entire season. "He was just so tough," Brett says.
At the end of the season Walker had a .223 batting average and had hit two home runs. He figured all 48 of his base hits came off fastballs, damn near the only fastballs he saw. He heard he was going to be released, but then an Expo hitting coach named Ralph Rowe successfully argued that Walker should be sent to the Florida Instructional League.
The town is West Palm Beach, Fla. Walker lives here now, owns a house and is buying a bigger one, because his wife, Christa, is pregnant with their first child and they need more room anyway, because you never know when someone from Canada is going to come down to visit. Last season he hit .301 for the Expos, with 23 home runs and 93 runs batted in. He also won a Gold Glove and had a pinch-hit single for the National League in the All-Star Game. In the off-season he signed a one-year contract for a reported $3 million.
He is 26 years old, a solid 215 pounds now, and even he has a hard time believing this is true, all true. How did this game that he played as a kid the same way he played, say, checkers or Parcheesi, just for fun, turn out to be such a gold mine? How can a heart be broken in a game he loved, then mended in a game he adopted? He makes more money than Neely. He stopped not long ago in Boston to see Neely, who joked that they had each had a choice of games to play and "you chose the right one and I chose the wrong one." How?