Handy Man The Rockies' Larry Walker has all the major league tools, and he wields them like a master craftsman

June 11, 2001
June 11, 2001

Table of Contents
June 11, 2001

Handy Man The Rockies' Larry Walker has all the major league tools, and he wields them like a master craftsman

The constant self-deprecation is not nearly as annoying as you'd
think. He goes 1 for 4 (with two RBIs), dropping his average to
.351, and on the way out of the clubhouse he asks a couple of
security guys if they know how to hit, 'cause he could use some
help right about now. "I mean it," he says. If they have ideas on
a new stroke, they should pipe up before he has to leave the
sport in shame. The security guys exchange helpless looks, shrug
and wave him by. As if they could tell Larry Walker anything
about hitting. Or fielding. Or throwing, or baserunning. They've
just gotta laugh. Isn't he headed for the Hall of Fame?

This is an article from the June 11, 2001 issue Original Layout

Luckily they don't say as much, or they'd likely be drenched in a
spit take on Walker's way out. Anybody who tries to frame his
credentials in a historical perspective, as a reporter did
earlier that day, is rewarded with Travis Bickle patter. "You
talking to me?" Walker says, swiveling his head around the
Colorado Rockies clubhouse, as if questions of baseball
immortality ought to be directed across the room to slugger Todd
Helton. "My legacy?"

It's not said in rebuke or in false modesty, which would be
annoying beyond belief, considering the size and variety of his
talents. It's said in bafflement. There's an odd charm to that
when you realize how detached Walker is from his achievements,
how clueless he remains after all these years. His is not a
cloying humility, the very hollowness of it meant to trumpet his
triumphs. His is the absolute amazement of a failed hockey player
who, by some accounts, may be the best player in baseball.

You knew he was different. This spring, when players sitting on
megamillion-dollar contracts were whining that they were
underpaid, Walker approved a deferment of his own income so the
Rockies could come up with some scratch for a pair of pitchers.
It was a big deal in Denver--everywhere, actually. Not many
players lend back $18 million in salary, which is essentially
what Walker did. That favor granted, the Rockies could sign free
agents Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle. "Probably took me all of
three seconds to decide," says Walker, who, as you will see, does
everything in threes. Our turn to be incredulous. "I've got
money," he says.

He's got a lot of it, to tell the truth, and it's not as if he
gave the Rockies their money back. He will bank $57 million over
six years, then get back the $18 million, with interest, over 20
years. So the sacrifice is not quite of Mother Teresa quality.
Still, for a baseball player, you have to conclude that this guy
has no sense of self-worth. Frank Thomas complained this spring
that $9.9 million wasn't worth the hassle of playing for the
Chicago White Sox, and Walker decides he can live on less. Won't
be easy, of course, but if he doesn't suddenly upgrade his
wardrobe to string ties, it's doable.

This is all by way of saying that Walker follows a different
path, although he would tell you he's not on any path at all,
just zigzagging through life. He has no use for the usual
hullabaloo of celebrity and has found a way to achieve his
minimal self-validation without the usual financial yardsticks.
He won't do endorsements because he can't stand the idea "of
turning on the TV and seeing my mug, doing something stupid," and
he won't stoop to pick up every dime that's available to him
simply because he's famous. The other day his agent came to him
with a proposal to sign 1,000 items in a guy's living room and
make $38,000. "I can't be bothered," Walker says.

The problem, you can see, is that all this ability is wasted on
somebody with no inclination to exploit it fully. He was the
National League MVP in 1997, had a nice three-year run ('97 to
'99) batting above .360 each season, twice winning batting
titles, and is generally considered among the best five-tool
players in the game. That's a lot of tools for somebody who
doesn't host This Old House, but when it comes to all-around
play--hitting for power and average, fielding, throwing and
baserunning--Walker may be peerless. "He's better than one of
the best," Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox once said. "He is
the best."

Add his otherworldly instincts--when to run and when to fake to
draw a throw from an outfielder--and you have somebody who is
severely overqualified for his job. "He's a six-tool guy,"
decides Chicago Cubs manager Don Baylor, who managed Walker in
Colorado from 1995 to '98. "Most talented player I've ever had."

All this for an unmade bed of a slob who answers to Dirtbag (an
upgrade from his tag in Montreal: Booger), who'd rather be
tooling (seven-tool guy?) through the Rockies on his Fatboy or
watching the Colorado Avalanche in his den than flaunting his
fame (or watching another baseball game--too boring, he says). Can
he really be that down-to-earth? "What I really enjoy," says
Walker, "is people not looking at me."

He's not been so inoculated to the perks of stardom that he won't
consider using pull to get front-row tickets this fall when Janet
Jackson comes to Denver. (A picture of Janet shares space above
his locker with one of his oldest daughter, seven-year-old
Brittany, from his first marriage.) Other than that, though,
Walker can't understand why a little extra eye-hand coordination
ought to provide special privilege. "It's just that I enjoy
fitting in," he says. "I like it when my buddies back home in
Maple Ridge [B.C.] say I haven't changed one bit, when they say
I'm still an idiot."

It's not only his upbringing in western Canada, where baseball
was something you did during those 14 weeks you didn't play
hockey, that keeps Walker's sporting ego in check. Maybe he'd be
distrustful of his position in the game anyway. He's especially
wary because of the unpredictability of baseball, which tends to
leave him high and dry for extended parts of seasons. He's 34
this year, his 12th full season in the majors, and in only one
season has he been healthy enough to play more than 143 games.
Inasmuch as that one year, when he played 153 games, was one of
the most remarkable MVP seasons ever (a near Triple Crown: .366,
49 home runs and 130 RBIs), his supporters are left to wonder
what his career might be like if he avoided injury. They wonder
away because in the years since that MVP season, Walker has
played in 130 games, then 127 and last year only 87.

It's always been something different. Walker, at 6'3", 233
pounds, is not especially frail and, contrary to whispers
throughout the league, is willing to play in pain, to the point
that he might embarrass himself. Yet, nearly every year, he is
sabotaged by injuries and must sit out prolonged stretches,
nursing a nice .379 average and wondering what if.

It began early in his career, when Walker was still finding his
way in this goofy U.S. sport. The Montreal Expos signed him as
an undrafted free agent in 1984, and he blew out his right knee
in 1988 while playing winter ball in Mexico's Pacific League. He
made the big club for good in 1990, but in '94 he tore the
rotator cuff in his right (throwing) shoulder and required
surgery. He signed with the Rockies as a free agent in 1995 and
broke his collarbone a year later. He had that dream season in
'97, but in '98 he missed eight starts with a sprained right
middle finger (and still won the batting crown). In 1999, after
signing a six-year contract extension, he missed considerable
time with a strained muscle in his rib cage and, later, frayed
cartilage in his left knee that eventually required surgery (and
he still won the batting crown).

Finally, last season he was put on the disabled list twice, with
elbow ailments so severe that he could not win a batting title
(he hit only .309) or, according to his wife, Angela, lift a
coffee cup. "Was he hurting?" she says. "I remember him tossing
our daughter, Canaan, in the air--she was five, six months old--and
crumpling in agony when he caught her."

That injury was nearly the last straw for Walker, who had been
stoic about his time on the DL. This time he asked himself,
"Who's doing this? Who do I see about this?" It was as close as
he's come to self-pity. The injury was presumably repaired in
surgery on Sept. 8, but he received no immunization from bad

Given all the time he's missed, is it any wonder Walker refuses
to bask in his rightful glory, dismisses each achievement, hides
behind his normality? Why tempt fate further? Better to keep his
five Gold Gloves scattered about his basement than risk the
inevitable payback for the slightest bravado. Maybe if he refuses
to enjoy the game, he'll be allowed to play it.

So far this year he's been allowed. Maybe it was the trainer he
worked with in the off-season, maybe the live-in nutritionist who
dishes up grilled chicken for lunch instead of something fried.
Why take any more chances than he has to? How many more tries at
this is he going to get? Through Sunday Walker was hitting a
pain-free .346 with 19 home runs and 56 RBIs, including three
homers--one a game-winner--and six RBIs last weekend. A possible
MVP season was looming, and the cruelty of baseball was in at
least temporary abeyance.

"If he plays 135 games," says Rockies hitting coach Clint Hurdle,
"he'll be MVP. Not a lot of things I'd bet on, but that's
something I've seen with my own eyes." On the other hand Hurdle
has been around the block enough to know that neither good health
nor awards are guaranteed and that Walker, no matter what those
security guys think, is not a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame. "If
he'd been healthy all those years, the numbers would be
staggering," says Hurdle. "But they're not, and that's what
separates the elite from the great." That's harsh, right? "Who's
to say life's fair?"

Walker, by any reckoning, shouldn't be in the big leagues, much
less terrorizing them. Growing up in Maple Ridge, 20 miles east
of Vancouver, all he wanted to do was play in the NHL, like his
hero, Mike Bossy of the New York Islanders. Walker's father,
Larry, had played baseball. His three brothers--Barry, Carey and
Gary (no lie!)--dabbled in it. Hockey, though, was his thing. "I
collected hockey cards," Walker says, not baseball cards. "I
didn't even know the Yankees were supposed to be good."

He might have played 15 to 20 baseball games a summer, but it was
only a way of killing time until he could get on with the
dramatic back-story to a legendary NHL goaltending career.
Except, in 1982 the first Junior A team he tried out for cut him.
Next year, invited back to work with the Regina (Sask.) Pats, he
got cut again. "And I consider myself a pretty good goaltender,"
he says, still mystified.

The next year he and a friend went back to Saskatchewan for one
more try. His friend made the team; Walker did not. It was
suggested that he try to land a spot on the Junior B team in
Swift Current, which was on the way home but still 16 hours from
Maple Ridge. Walker agreed, but when he reached Swift Current,
walked around the town and realized he was about to be orphaned
for the sake of taking a puck in the teeth every lonely night,
he reconsidered his dreams. "Not my cup of tea," he finally
decided, "although I still think I could have made it."

So he went at baseball a little bit, although not a version of
baseball that many of us would recognize. He never saw a
forkball, a slider or even much of a curveball, and was so poorly
grounded in fundamentals that, well, we'll tell that story in a
bit. After his bitter journey through Saskatchewan, Walker found
an amateur league in Vancouver that offered a 72-game season, and
he discovered that he could knock a fastball over the fence every
once in a while. That earned him a spot on the Canadian junior
team (not in the sport he wanted, but still) and a return visit
to Saskatchewan in the summer of 1984 to play at the national
training camp.

Some major league scouts were there, and Walker might have caught
their eye when he got ahold of a fastball, but let it be known
here that a bidding war did not break out. The Montreal
organization signed him to a $1,500 bonus and then lumped him
with all its other long shots on an independent team in Utica,
N.Y. It was a kind of cold storage for every kid who couldn't
quite shake the notion that he was going to be a valuable rookie
card. This was supposed to be Walker's baseball Swift Current. To
prepare, he joined his father's softball team, Maple Ridge Lanes,
which was heavy on Walkers (all five men were in the lineup), and
was named MVP.

MVP aside, it wasn't much preparation. In Utica he was astounded
by the level of play, even in this ragtag outfit. They threw
breaking balls, off-speed pitches. It was hardly fair. "I
couldn't get a ball out of the batting cage," he says. And the
rules! One of the times he did get on base, Walker flew around
second on a hit-and-run and then had to retreat to first when the
ball was caught. He cut across the pitcher's mound, to save time,
and his coach lit into him, telling him he had to touch second.
Walker didn't see the logic: "I already did, the first time." He
hit a crisp .223, and only because the pitchers had to mix in a
fastball every now and then.

The upshot was that Walker was not going to be hustled through
the organization--which, when you think about it, is what saved
him. One instructional league after another, where he'd get a cup
of soup and an orange every day for lunch, the scouts forgiving
his lamentable performance in light of his physical gifts. What's
more, he got the baseball mileage he needed. "I worked my ass
off," he says. "I took a jillion fly balls, hit till my hands
bled." Finally, he began to get it.

Now everything he does seems so instinctive, so natural, it's
hard to believe he wasn't born on the diamond. Walt Weiss, the
Colorado teammate who hung Dirtbag on him ("It could have been
worse," says Weiss, now retired), was surprised to learn that
Walker hadn't been playing the game since he was five. "That
ability to make split-second decisions on the fly the way Larry
does," he says, "that's what's amazing."

Walker's teammates are, to a man, admiring. "Jealous, more like
it," says Helton. They all have their favorite moment, whether
it's Walker pretending to settle under an easy fly ball, then
suddenly breaking back to take it off the wall and gun down the
poor sap at second, or Walker making a leap in the outfield to
rob somebody of a home run. "I took film of him jumping against
that wall in Dodger Stadium back to my trainer in Tennessee,"
says Helton. "I told him, 'I want to do that.'"

He can't, though. The things Walker does, nobody else can. Even
when he's hurt, he's scary. "What I remember most about Larry,"
says Helton, who is fast becoming Gehrig to Walker's Ruth, "is
last year when he couldn't throw. His arm was in bandages, white
strips flying--and they still wouldn't send runners on him."

Although there seems to be a feeling around the league that he
could play hurt more often, it's Walker's playing hurt that
Hurdle singles out. Hurdle, a former teammate of George Brett's,
always tells Walker how Brett, at 80%, was more important to the
team than a healthy replacement. "One of the most amazing things
I've seen Larry accomplish," says Hurdle, "was during those two
seasons after '97, when, hurt as he was, he hit for a high
average. He had to take daily inventory of what was going good
and come up with a stroke that would work within the parameters
of his health. It was never dramatic--a layman's eye would never
notice. But he'd raise his hands on the bat or open his stance,
just to have a stroke that was pain-free. It was different every
night for two years."

Sometimes his effort is invisible to the expert's eye as well,
and the resulting impression is that Walker is indifferent to
the game, as if he'd rather be playing hockey. (He would, but
that's beside the point.) "He plays his ass off," says Rockies
manager Buddy Bell. "The problem I have is that...when he runs
the bases he looks like he's not trying." That's the other knock
on him, if it's a knock. "He does make things look easy," says

Too easy. Walker recognizes it too. "I've watched myself play on
tape," he admits, "and even I think I'm not trying."

It's the curse of the gifted, to infuriate lesser mortals. "We've
gone into a bar," says Angela, "and there'll be a dartboard.
Bull's-eye. Drives you crazy."

Walker exaggerates this impression in about a hundred, entirely
unnecessary, ways. His teammates might be pounding their fists
into their gloves, acting intense and competitive, and Walker is
chatting with the fans in the outfield bleachers. He's sorry they
have to watch a sport as slow as baseball, and he's trying to
help them pass the time. Everything he does seems casual, at
times to the point of comedy, at others to the point of, well,
you have to scratch your head.

Like the stories that he rarely takes batting practice,
preferring to hang out in the clubhouse and sort his teammates'
mail. That anecdote is embedded in every feature on Walker and,
while colorful enough, is misleading. Sometimes he does take BP
(the day after he polled the security guards, he was at the park
early for extra work with Hurdle), and he always warms up before
the game in the indoor cage with 15 or so swings. He will also
study film when things aren't going right. His teammates know
he's more grit than quirk, or else he wouldn't be hitting .360
for years at a stretch, even playing half his games in Coors
Field. "He doesn't seem to be taking anything seriously," says
Neagle, "which is my kind of guy. On the other hand you've got to
watch out for flying bats. Larry can snap with the best in the

For the most part, however, Walker masks this desire behind a wry
flippancy, using humor acquired in the Walker household. By
brother Gary's reckoning, that in itself is "kind of comical."
You wouldn't expect much else from parents named Larry and Mary
who called their first two sons Barry and Carey before (they say)
they noticed a pattern. (They rhyme!) "That snuck up on us," says
Larry Sr., sort of seriously. "We weren't doing it for belly
laughs." Larry Jr. shakes his head. That was the high level of
humor, with the four boys pulling hilarious pranks on their
mother. How hilarious? "You know," says Gary, "sneaking up behind
her, stuff like that."

Larry's clubhouse behavior is hardly more sophisticated. It's
common for him to walk around with a sanitary stocking tied
around his head. It was considered highly cerebral of him when,
in an All-Star Game at bat against Randy Johnson (whom Walker had
been ridiculed for ducking), he turned his cap around and batted
righty. "I almost wet myself on that one," says his dad.

Walker's insistence on the holiness of the numeral three does not
give you much confidence in his sanity either. His uniform number
is 33, he takes three practice swings, sets his alarm clock for
three minutes past the goes on and on. "Let's see,"
he says, "my first marriage was on Nov. 3 at 3:33, lasted three
years--it ended in '93--and cost me $3 million." So that's your
lucky number, huh? "It can't work every time. Anyway, I've got
other superstitions you don't know about."

That low-grade flakiness is much appreciated everywhere he goes,
baseball being as sober as it is. It's the kind of thing that
makes players colorful without being dangerously interesting. But
if it's part of a larger attitude, then you have to wonder. What
does it mean when Walker has three home runs in a game in 1997
and, instead of going for number 4, takes himself out?

If it means he doesn't care, then he's not a tragic figure dogged
by bad luck but something much worse. To be such a poor steward
of talent that the limits of achievement are left untested is to
sin mortally in this society of ambition. What the rest of us
wouldn't give to hit a 50th home run, to pick up a dart and throw
a bull's-eye, to renegotiate that pitiful $75 million contract.
How dare he?

However, if it means he has mastered a nonchalance that insulates
him from the stupid fatigue of stardom, then that's something
else. It's hard to hit .379. It's almost impossible to do it and
retain that Maple Ridge normality, even if he's calling his
brother Gary every day. ("Girl talk," Angela guesses.) Anyway,
what does he need with a better contract? When he learned that
negotiations had stalled two years ago, Walker barked at his
agent, "I won't spend $75 million in a lifetime," and had him
close the deal. And what did Walker need with that fourth home
run? "It was in a game against the Expos," recalls Baylor. "We
had a huge lead, and he was not going to embarrass his former
team. It didn't matter to him."

Maybe that's how it is when a person is so much better than
everyone else, does everything so easily, that he has to be
careful to keep his mug out of view. Why rub it in? Yes, he can
hit .379, but he's an idiot like the rest of us. He can even
belch the alphabet (so he says). Whatever distance his talents
create, his shambling attitude destroys. "You know," says Angela,
"he's not even that messy a guy. I know about his nickname, but
you should see his closet. Not that he's anal about it, but his
clothes are all color-coordinated."

Dirtbag's closet? The guy with the sock around his head, who
doesn't particularly care if he's MVP again, the one we see
gossiping with fans in rightfield? It all makes you wonder.
Color-coordinated? What if he cares about this stuff after all,
and we just don't know?

COLOR PHOTO: COVER PHOTOGRAPH BY WALTER IOOSS JR. COVER Humble Hero Larry Walker would be the last to admit it, but he's as good as they getCOLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY WALTER IOOSS JR.FOUR COLOR PHOTOS: ROBERT BECK TOOL 1 FIELDINNG Walker is willing to play in pain, but nearly every year he is sabotaged Contact sport On May 28, against L.A., Walker (33) held on to the ball despite a collision with Helton and second baseman Todd Walker.COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS TOOL 2 HITTING FOR POWER Everything seems so instinctive, it's hard to believe he wasn't born on the diamond.COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS TOOL 3 THROWING "Last year he couldn't throw," Helton says, "and they still wouldn't send runners on him."COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN TOOL 4 BASERUNNING "The problem is, when he runs the bases he looks like he's not trying," says Bell.COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK TOOL 5 HITTING FOR AVERAGE Teammates know he's more grit than quirk, or he wouldn't have hit .360 for years.
Walker would tell you he's not on any path at all, just
zigzagging through life.