The sign was the first sign of trouble. When the handmade
placard appeared in the centerfield seats of the Kingdome early
in the game, Larry Walker realized that Friday, June 13, was not
going to be his lucky day. WHERE'S WALKER? the sign read, and
the question still haunts him. Where was he? On the Colorado
Rockies' bench, protecting his wounded knee from the artificial
turf and his .400 average from the most lethal lefthanded
pitcher in the game. It was not the first day off nor the last
this season for the oft-injured Walker, but it was the most
controversial. He knew it would be dangerous to step into the
box against Seattle Mariners ace Randy Johnson, but he hadn't
realized how perilous it could be to stay out of it.
"I couldn't turn on ESPN or pick up a paper without hearing
about what a piece of crap I was," Walker says. "I feel like I
started World War III or something. I could have lied and said
my knee hurt, but I told the truth. Randy Johnson is the best
pitcher in the game, and I didn't want to face him. A lot of
guys don't face him. I didn't think it was that big a deal." He
quickly learned otherwise. Ferris Bueller took a day off with
On the nights following the visit to Seattle, Walker logged on
to the Internet with his laptop and anonymously absorbed the
drive-by blows from assorted cyberhecklers. One person called
him "a candy ass" for ducking Johnson, while others said he
should have an asterisk next to his name in the lists of
National League statistical leaders. The sports pages were
filled with nasty letters and columns questioning his manhood,
and The Denver Post conducted a phone-in poll in which a third
of the hometown callers thought Walker should have faced
Johnson. It was the first time in his career he had faced such
criticism--Me? A candy ass?--and he couldn't ignore it.
Walker is generally an easygoing, approachable guy, a throwback
player who feels more comfortable bellying up to a bar than
lounging in a limo. But this time he reached his breaking point.
One week after the infamous night off, he was sitting at a hotel
bar in San Diego with his brother, Gary, when a stranger leaned
across an empty stool and said snidely, "So how about that Randy
Johnson?" Walker was on the guy like Tyson on Holyfield, only
Walker bit off the entire face. "I laid a million swear words on
the guy, and I was ready to go at it," says Walker. "People had
to step in between us. I asked him what gave him the right to
say something like that to me. I wanted to know. He said he was
a youth soccer coach who admired the way I played. He said he
didn't know why he said something to me, and he apologized."
July 13, 1997
Walker stands 6'3", weighs 225 pounds and looks as if he could
eat glass. The bigmouth in the San Diego bar was big, says
Walker, breaking into a smile, "but not as big as Randy Johnson.
So I wasn't scared of him."
Larry Walker is dead last in the majors in pretentiousness. He's
30, but when he looks in the mirror, he still sees a dirty-faced
kid from Maple Ridge, B.C., a failed goaltender who stumbled
into a baseball career and savors every minute he spends in the
big leagues. When someone uses the word superstar in his
presence, he looks around the room like one of the Three Stooges
and wonders who has walked in. It can't be him. He's still
waiting for the dream to end and someone to tell him it's time
to go to work for his father selling lumber in Vancouver. "The
people back home will say to me, 'Boy, you haven't changed at
all,'" he says. "To me, that's the nicest thing anyone can say
He has a crooked smile and hair that usually looks as if he
combed it with a lit firecracker. He dresses as if he were
always about to paint the porch, and he takes a shower every few
days whether he needs one or not. Rockies shortstop Walt Weiss
hung the nickname Dirtbag on him, and, naturally, Walker wears
it proudly. "I have lots of nice clothes," says Walker, after
showing up for a recent game in an untucked T-shirt and baggy
shorts. "I just don't wear them." He earns more than $5 million
a year, but it recently dawned on him that during the season he
rarely uses his house on a golf course in West Palm Beach, Fla.
So he called the cable company there and canceled HBO.
The furor that followed the game he sat out made Walker feel
like the class clown who has been asked to dance by the
homecoming queen. You want me? He couldn't believe everyone had
been there to see him hit. "It made me realize that people are
really watching what I'm doing now," says Walker. "Which is
good, I guess. If I wasn't doing anything, nobody would've
noticed whether I was in the lineup."
So where is Walker, anyway? These days, near the top of almost
every offensive category in the National League. Going into the
All-Star break, he was batting a major-league-high .398 and had
25 home runs and 68 RBIs. He also led the majors in total bases,
slugging percentage, on-base percentage and extra-base hits. He
was clearly the National League MVP for the first half of the
season and a genuine gate attraction in a sport that needs all
it can get.
Walker is considered among the most complete players in
baseball, but he says one result of his success continues to
give him fits. Sometimes he just doesn't understand what all the
fuss is about. "I have people come up to me and shake my hand
and say, 'Oh, god, I'm never going to wash this hand again!'"
says Walker. "I'm sorry, I just don't get it. I'm just a person,
no different than your brother or your father. What's the big
The big deal? How about this: Walker never played high school
baseball, never played college baseball, never thought baseball
was anything but a way to kill time with a few summer league
games between hockey seasons. He says he didn't see an off-speed
pitch until he was 17, when the Montreal Expos signed him, in
1985, for a $1,500 bonus and sent him to Class A Utica. "He was
very fast, very strong, and he just had a fire in him that made
you think he was going to make it," says Gene Glynn, the
Rockies' third base coach, who managed Walker in Utica.
First, however, there was the matter of learning the rules. Once
while with Utica, Walker broke for second on a hit-and-run and
nearly reached third before realizing the batter had flied out
to center. When Glynn, coaching third, told him to hustle back
to first, Walker did just that, and beat the throw. One thing,
though: He never touched second on the way back; instead he
sprinted across the diamond and over the pitcher's mound and
slid into first. When the ump called him out, Walker bounced up
and argued the call. Says Glynn, "When I explained that he had
to touch second, he said, 'Why? I already did.' I just said,
'Son, you've got a long way to go.' But that's the thing with
Larry: He was as fast a learner as I've ever seen. He never made
the same mistake twice."
Now, 12 years later, Walker is considered among the most natural
players in the game. "The best baserunning instincts I've ever
seen," says Weiss. "Paul Molitor is the only guy I've ever seen
Walker, a two-time Gold Glove winner in rightfield, has a
reputation as a classic five-tool player--with the ability to
run, hit, hit with power, field and throw--but he insists those
days are gone. "My arm is shot," he says. "I can't throw like I
used to." But he can hit like never before. "Sometimes this year
I've even surprised myself," he says. "I'll hit one down the
leftfield line in one at bat and down the rightfield line the
next. Sometimes it's like, Wow, how'd I do that?"
To watch Walker play is to wonder what would have happened if he
had been born and raised on dusty diamonds in Houston or Tampa
or San Diego. Would his skills have surpassed even those of the
game's great prodigies, Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Bonds?
"Probably would have been a football player," says Glynn.
Walker was somewhat of a homeland hero during his five seasons
with Montreal, before signing a four-year, $22.5 million
contract with Colorado as a free agent in April 1995. He had
some productive years for the Expos, especially in the
strike-shortened '94 season when he hit .322 with 19 home runs
and 86 RBIs, but never flirted with the numbers he's putting up
this summer. He says there's a simple explanation for his
success this year: He finally is meeting his one and only goal.
"All I try to do is stay healthy," he says. "And let's face it:
I've been horse---- at that."
In addition to missing the entire 1988 season after he had major
surgery to reconstruct his right knee, Walker has been on the
disabled list three other times and played more than 140 games
just once. In his first year with Colorado he hit 36 homers and
drove in 101 runs in 131 games. In his second season with the
Rockies he ran into the centerfield fence on June 9 and snapped
his collarbone. He missed 60 games and was not even close to
full speed when he returned in August. He hit .276 for the
season, just .142 on the road. The disaster of '96 made Walker
more determined than ever to earn his money in '97. "I owed it
to the organization, I owed it to the fans," he says. "I get
paid a lot to play this game, and I didn't want to sit on the
bench this year--at least not every day."
He vowed to be more cautious after the last injury, but when he
returned to Vancouver last winter, he couldn't help himself. He
went crazy. He went wild. He went fishing. Some guys just can't
resist life on the edge. "It was four in the morning, and we
were just heading out," he says. "I slipped on a rock
and--boom--separated my shoulder. Just a freak thing."
Walker recovered in time for the start of the season, but he and
manager Don Baylor agreed that he would not play every inning of
every game. Walker has left a number of games early, including
two in the homestand before the trip to Seattle, and had decided
even before Opening Day to sit out against Johnson. His
prolonged stretch above the Ted Williams Line did nothing to
deter his plans for a day off. "All the stuff that's been
written is b.s.," says Baylor. "When I played, a lot of guys
didn't face Nolan Ryan. And how many other guys aren't facing
Johnson? John Olerud.... Rafael Palmiero.... A lot of guys
No one else has accused Olerud or Palmiero of dodging Johnson,
but Baylor is right in one sense. Remarkably, only 10 lefthanded
hitters have faced Johnson in his 18 starts this season. So
Walker has company. "I know I'm not the only one," he says, "but
I'm not going to rat out everyone else." When Walker was voted a
starter for the All-Star Game, he was immediately needled: Would
he duck Johnson again? He assured everyone he would not.
Walker even more easily dispatches the questions about whether
he can become the first .400 hitter in 56 years. "I don't mind
people asking me," he says, "because I know it's not going to
happen. I'm a career .285 hitter." In fact, on July 2 he slipped
under .400--for the first time since early April--during an
0-for-11 three-game minislump.
Not everyone is so sure he will stay down there. Teammate Ellis
Burks says that there is a difference between Walker and other
players who have recently had a brush with .400 this late in the
season. "I think you need speed to do it, and he's got it," says
Burks. "Look at guys like Olerud and [Andres] Galarraga. They
were up around .400 in 1993 and they slipped. But neither of
them could run like Larry."
While he doesn't expect Walker to stay above .400, Weiss
believes his teammate is in the midst of a special season, of
the sort that Jose Canseco enjoyed with the Oakland A's in 1988.
Canseco hit 42 home runs, stole 40 bases, drove in 124 and was
unanimously elected the American League MVP. "Walk doesn't have
the pure power that Jose had, but he has the same confidence,"
says Weiss, a rookie with the A's in '88. "Every time Jose went
to the plate, he knew he was going to hit the ball hard
somewhere. That's the way Walk is now."
Weiss says Walker shares another trait with the young Canseco:
the ability to float blithely above the fray, seemingly
unaffected by the pressures that come with a record-setting
individual performance. "They both just kind of wing it," says
Weiss. "Although I don't think Jose was quite as carefree as
Larry. Jose watched an occasional video [of an opposing pitcher
or of his own at bats] before a game, and he'd talk hitting once
in a while. I've never heard Larry talk hitting."
Talk hitting? For the most part Walker doesn't even practice
hitting. He occasionally takes batting practice on the road, but
never at Coors Field and never in the off-season. It's not that
he doesn't have a regimen. It's just that it's a little unusual.
For example, instead of doing sit-ups or wind sprints before a
game, he delivers the mail to everyone in the clubhouse. "He's
got his own way of getting ready," says Weiss. "It may be
unconventional, but so is he."
So, even if he should hit .400, it's unlikely that Walker will
write the next great instructional book on hitting. His
philosophy: See it, hit it. The most important part of his
preparation is tending to his many superstitions. Among his
quirks is an obsession with the number 3. He wears uniform
number 33, takes three practice swings before stepping into the
batter's box and sets his alarm clock for three minutes past the
hour. He got married on Nov. 3 at 3:33 p.m. "And three years
later, I got divorced, and it cost me $3 million," he says.
Walker has another important three in his life--his daughter,
Brittany, who turns four later this month. She lives with
Walker's former wife, Christa, in Seattle, which made the Randy
Johnson road trip worthwhile despite all the controversy. Walker
says he sees Brittany when he can but admits that isn't enough.
When the subject turns to fatherhood, the one-liners do not
flow, his confidence fades, and he turns dead serious. He may
not often read scouting reports, but he has been spotted in the
clubhouse reading Parents magazine. "I do what I can, but at the
same time, I'm not sure how good I am at it," he says. "As
little as I see her, it's tough not to wonder, How good a father
am I? How good a dad could I possibly be?"
Walker estimates he spends a month and a half with his daughter
in the course of a year. His parents recently brought Brittany
to Colorado to visit during a homestand, but Walker says that
didn't make things any easier because five days later he was
back on a bus to the airport--and there was his little girl
waving goodbye, out of his life again. "She didn't want me to
go; then she asked if she could come with me," he says. "That
just killed me. I get on the bus and sit down next to Billy
Swift, and he just looks at me. Tears are streaming down my
face. That's something the public doesn't see. We hurt. We're
human. We have feelings. We cry, as you're going to see if I
keep talking about her."
When he really wants to torture himself, Walker listens to a
sad, slow Alabama song called In Pictures. He says that's the
only way he can watch his girl grow up--in pictures. He says he
will always envy all those fathers who are there each day for
their kids. "Believe me, I feel very guilty about it," he says.
"I can spoil her to death when I see her, but that doesn't
change the fact that when she wakes up in the morning, I'm not
Where's Walker? In the end, there is only one person in Seattle
to whom he owes an explanation.