COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. (AP) — Larry Walker’s right hand was shaking ever-so-slightly as he reached to sign the space where his plaque will hang in baseball’s Hall of Fame. Reality was still sinking in, a month after his selection.
“It doesn’t seem legit. I feel like I just won a lottery ticket,” Walker said Tuesday after a tour of baseball’s shrine to prepare for his induction in the summer. “I’m kind of trembling inside right now. Nothing seems real about it. I’m still trying to absorb it all. It hasn’t happened yet. I don’t know when it’s going to happen. Maybe it’s going to be in July. Maybe it’s going to be later today. I just don’t know, but it’s crazy to think what I just did.”
Now 53, Walker earned baseball’s highest honor in January on his 10th and final appearance on the writers’ ballot. He received 304 votes, six above the 75% needed, and will be inducted July 26 along with former New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, catcher Ted Simmons and former players’ association head Marvin Miller.
A native of Maple Ridge, British Columbia, just outside Vancouver, Walker joins pitcher Ferguson Jenkins as the only Canadian-born players elected to the Hall of Fame, and it’s a source of pride.
“To have this honor and to be from north of the border, to be the first position player, the second Canadian, I can’t find the words,” Walker said. “I’m stuttering around here.”
That’s easy to understand considering Walker’s past. His boyhood dreams were filled with skates and hockey sticks, not bats and gloves. His older brother, Carey, was a goaltender drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in 1977, and Larry was going to follow in his footsteps.
“My dream was to play hockey. That’s what I wanted to do,” Walker said. “A Canadian kid growing up playing hockey, Hall of Fame for me was the Hockey Hall of Fame. It wasn’t the Baseball Hall of Fame.”
Walker tried for two years in Junior A hockey and found little success. That was the turning point.
“I failed both years,” he said. “My last year they were going to send me to Junior B in Swift Current (Saskatchewan). I remember driving to Swift Current, saw the rink, and … decided to pack it in. Baseball found me after that.”
Introduced to the game by his dad, who played semipro ball in the 1950s for the old Vancouver Mounties of the Pacific Coast League, Walker landed in an amateur league back home. He also excelled at fast-pitch softball.
“That’s where I really, I think, learned how to hit,” he said. “Guys were throwing windmill softball from 40 feet away. The year before I signed a professional contract, that’s what I played in. I was the MVP of the men’s league at 16 years old.”
Walker signed with the Montreal Expos for $1,500 in 1984, as raw as a player with professional aspirations could be. First stop was in nearby Utica of the Class-A New York-Penn League and that time is forever embedded in his mind.
“I had to learn, and my learning was done not only in spring training and instructional leagues I went to, it was done in the minor leagues,” Walker said. “I remember I was really, really bad. I hit .223 with two home runs. Utica was … kind of where they sent the rejects in a way, and I was one of them for the first two years of my pro career. But it starts somewhere.”
Walker made his major league debut in August 1989 at age 22 and played 17 years in the majors with Montreal (six), Colorado (10) and St. Louis. He batted .313 with 383 homers and 1,311 RBIs and is one of only four players with a career batting average of at least .300, 300 home runs, and 200 stolen bases. The other three are Hall of Famers Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and George Brett.
A five-tool player who sustained injuries that twice sidelined him for more than 70 games, Walker won the 1997 home run title with 49 in 1997 when he was the National League MVP, three batting championships, five Gold Gloves, and was an All-Star five times. He also registered 150 assists as a right fielder, 18th all-time at the position, according to Baseball Reference, before retiring after the 2005 season.
Touring the Hall of Fame for inductees always includes time in the basement, where players get to hold such artifacts as a bat once wielded by Babe Ruth, and upstairs a slow walk through the Plaque Gallery leaves a lasting impression.
“It’s almost like the day I got the phone call,” said Walker, whose plaque will have a Rockies cap. “You’re in awe, grateful, appreciative of everything that has happened. Today was a great day, and it just got capped off by signing the wall where my plaque’s going to go. It still doesn’t seem right, but I just did it.”
By JOHN KEKIS AP Sports Writer
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