Baseball teaches patience. One of the worst things a baseball player can do is hurry. The harder you try, the less success you find on the diamond. Larry Walker might be the most patient man in baseball. He was elected to Cooperstown in his final year on the ballot. Walker will finally have his moment in the sun as he joins the Hall of Fame. Now he must wait again as the Covid-19 Pandemic has delayed his induction until 2021. He waited 10 years to be elected, now he has to wait one more. Even the retirement of his #33 by the Rockies was postponed due to the delayed Major League season.
Larry Walker’s baseball resume is extensive. He is a 5 time All Star (1992, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2001), 3 time Silver Slugger (1992, 1997, 1999), 7 time Gold Glove winner (1992, 1993, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2002), 3 time Batting Champion (1998, 1999, 2001), and the 1997 National League Most Valuable Player. Walker won the Tip O’Neill award 9 times (1987, 1990, 1992, 1994, 1995, 1997, 1998, 2001, 2002) as the Canadian baseball player “judged to have excelled in individual achievement and team contribution while adhering to the highest ideals of the game of baseball.”
Hall of Fame careers are built through season after season of consistency. In 17 Major League seasons Walker played for the Montreal Expos (1989-1994), Colorado Rockies (1995-2004), and St. Louis Cardinals (2004-2005). In 1,988 Games he collected 2,160 Hits, scored 1,355 Runs, 471 Doubles, 62 Triples, 383 Home Runs, 1,311 RBI, 230 Stolen Bases, 913 Walks (117 Intentional), 1,231 Strikeouts, 3,904 Total Bases, 138 Hit By Pitch, .313 BA, .400 OBP, .565 SLG, .965 OPS, and 141 OPS+.
Larry Walker was a pure hitter but never gets the credit he deserves because of playing in Colorado during the Steroid Era. (Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
Larry Walker was an elite hitter, especially during his peak. He rarely receives the credit he deserves for two reasons. First, his peak was during the height of the Steroid Era. His excellence was often overshadowed by juiced sluggers. Second, critics often credit much of his success to playing at altitude in Colorado. Examining Walker’s career Home/Road Splits does show he hit better at home. In 986 career home Games, Walker collected 1,193 Hits, including 268 Doubles, 39 Triples, and 215 Home Runs, with a .348 BA, .431 OBP, .637 SLG, 1.068 OPS, and 121 OPS+. In 1,002 career road Games, he collected 967 Hits, including 203 Doubles, 23 Triples, and 168 Home Runs, with a .278 BA, .370 OBP, .495 SLG, .865 OPS, and 80 OPS+. There is no denying Walker benefited from hitting at Coors Field. However, why should he be penalized for playing in Colorado? If playing for the Rockies disqualifies a player from the Hall of Fame, MLB should never have placed a team in Denver. Also, Walker played 7 of his 17 seasons away from Colorado.
Baseball is about more than what a player can do with the bat, they must use their glove too. Walker played 1,718 Games in Right Field. In 15,678.2 Innings he had 4,246 Chances, made 3,976 Putouts, with 213 Assists, turned 92 Double Plays, and committed 57 Errors for a .987 Fielding %. Gold Gloves are rarely given to undeserving players, and winning 7 of them is proof Walker was more than a hitter.
1997 was Larry Walker’s best season. He won the National League Most Valuable Player award, becoming the first and so far only Rockies player to do so. Walker won in a landslide, beating second place Mike Piazza by almost 100 points and received 22 of 28 first place votes. In 153 Games Walker collected 208 Hits, including 46 Doubles, 4 Triples, 49 Home Runs, scored 143 Runs, 130 RBI, 33 Stolen Bases, 78 Walks (14 Intentional), 90 Strikeouts, 409 Total Bases, 14 Hit By Pitch, a .366 BA, .452 OBP, .720 SLG, 1.172 OPS, and 178 OPS+. He led the Senior Circuit in Home Runs, Total Bases, OBP, SLG, OPS, and finished second in BA only .006 behind Tony Gwynn.
Dispelling the naysayers, Walker’s road numbers in 1997 were elite. In 75 Road Games, he collected 92 Hits, 16 Doubles, 29 Home Runs, scored 61 Runs, 62 RBI, 16 Stolen Bases, 42 Walks (7 Intentional), 56 Strikeouts, 5 Hit By Pitch, 195 Total Bases, .346 BA, .443 OBP, .733 SLG, 1.176 OPS, and 213 OPS+. While he hit 9 more Home Runs on the Road than at Home, in 3 fewer games, Walker’s numbers were even better at home. MVP’s have stats that jump out at you. Larry Walker played out of his mind on the road in 1997. He was on another planet at Coors Field.
Hall of Fame players are not always successful in the Postseason. Larry Walker reached the Postseason three times, in 1995 with Colorado and 2004 and 2005 at the end of his career with St. Louis. The Cardinals were swept by the Red Sox in Walker’s only World Series in 2004. In 28 career Postseason games, Walker hit .230, with 5 Doubles, 1 Triple, 7 Home Runs, 15 RBI, scored 18 Runs, 2 Stolen Bases, 16 Walks, 28 Strikeouts, with a .350 OBP. While he did not play his best in October, the majority of his Postseason play was at the end of his career as a part time player.
Larry Walker was a Hall of Fame player and heard the news of his election to Cooperstown while wearing a legendary shirt. (@Rockies)
After retiring following the 2005 season Larry Walker began waiting the five years to be on the Hall of Fame ballot. The Maple Ridge, British Columbia native was inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame in 2007 and the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2009. He first appeared on the ballot for Cooperstown in 2011, receiving just 20.3% of the vote. Walker floated between 22.9% in 2012 and 10.2% in 2014 until 2017. The Hall of Fame looked just out of reach. In his final three years of eligibility, Walker’s fortunes changed. In 2018, his 8th year on the ballot, he received 34.1% of the vote. In 2019 he was up to 54.6%. 2020 was Walker’s 10th and final year on the ballot. If he was not elected his enshrinement would be determined by a future Veterans Committee, a long shot process at best. Derek Jeter was one vote shy of unanimous, receiving 396 of 397 votes. Walker needed 298 votes to make it to Cooperstown. When the results were revealed, Walker received 304 votes, 6 more than he needed. His place among the games legends was secure. He joins Ferguson Jenkins as the only Canadians elected to the Hall of Fame. Walker is also the first Rockies player enshrined.
Patience is key in baseball. Wait for your pitch, stay down on a ground ball, camp under a fly ball. Baseball is about waiting and no one understands this better than Larry Walker. He used every possible moment of the Hall of Fame election process to secure his place in Cooperstown. He cleared the bar by 6 votes. Now he has to wait a little longer due to the Covid-19 Pandemic for his day in the sun as he is inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Growing up around Atlanta in the 1990’s there was plenty of great baseball games and players to watch. Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, and Chipper Jones were all Hall of Fame players. Andruw Jones, Otis Nixon, Javy Lopez, and so many more were great players to watch. These riches on the diamond were amazing, but as time has gone by the realization of how great it was to watch these players night after night has set in. Fans across the country might only have a few chances each season to see these players and they understood that you should take the time to slow down and appreciate them.
The understanding that I need to slow down and watch when a great player passes through town has sunk in more as I get older. Appreciating the greatest of a player goes beyond the highlight reel plays. It is watching how they approach each pitch throughout a game, both at the plate and in the field. There are only a select few players in baseball that can capture my attention even when they are not making great plays. Players who make me stop and watch just in case they do something amazing.
These stop what you are doing and watch players are the elite few. Some I have had the pleasure of watching in person, others I missed my opportunity to watch their greatness. When I was living in New York for graduate school and the few years after, I was lucky enough to see Derek Jeter play on a few occasions. Jeter was never the best hitter, but he was good one. He did not have the most power, the biggest arm, or greatest fielding range, but he commanded everything inside Yankee Stadium. While only getting to see Jeter in the later part of his career, it was still special to see one of the few players who was respected across baseball without exception. It takes a special player to be respected by Red Sox fans even though he was a lifelong Yankee that broke Boston’s heart on so many occasions. Watching Jeter play consumed a majority of my time at Yankee Stadium. I watched how he moved with every pitch and how he was the man on the field and yet everyone knew in their heart that he was never the most talented. Derek Jeter could do everything on a baseball diamond, but it was what did not show up in the box score, which set him apart from everyone else.
I usually went to Mets games simply because the tickets were cheaper, however when I did venture up to the Bronx and Yankee Stadium it was special. Even inside the new Yankee Stadium the history of the Yankees resonates. Watching two players who will and should be first ballot Hall of Famers, Jeter and Ichiro, plus my favorite player in Andruw Jones meant the 2012 Yankees were the best for me. Watching Jones patrol the outfield with the Braves growing up spoiled me. If it was catchable, he seemed to always catch it. The 2012 Yankees meant I got to relieve a bit of my childhood with Andruw Jones, watch the coolest man in baseball in Derek Jeter, and watch one of the greatest pure hitters of all time in Ichiro.
The beauty of Ichiro’s swing and his athleticism at the plate are what always caught my eye. He seemed, and still seems, like a magician at the plate. He never seems to be fooled on a pitch; he might swing and miss but never look awful in doing it. Ichiro is to me what a baseball player ought to be. He can beat you with power, though he rarely displays it. He can put the ball in play and then beat you with his speed. Then on defense, he can chase down fly balls with the best of them. If runners are on base they advance at their own risk, as Ichiro is blessed with a cannon for an arm. Ichiro has all five tools, though he keeps his power hidden until it is absolutely necessary. Watching Ichiro hit is the closest I will ever come to watching a hitter on the same level like a Ted Williams, Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, or Honus Wagner. Watching Ichiro and Jeter play were and are a return to my childhood. A return to when baseball was simple and the players were larger than life; the baseball that was and forever will be my first love.
I have not gotten to see every player I wanted to see play in person, though I did on television. The two biggest players that I did not get to see play in person that I will forever be sad about are Ken Griffey Jr. and Vladimir Guerrero. Yes, I saw both players on television, but not in person. There is a big difference in appreciating how great a player is when you see them not through a camera lens, but with your own eyes.
The two most obvious reasons I never saw Ken Griffey Jr. play in person are that he played in Seattle and Cincinnati and I lived in Atlanta. This meant at best his team would come to Atlanta once a year. Interleague play did not start until 1997. This meant seven seasons of Griffey’s 22-year career were already gone. Then there were the last three years in Seattle before he moved on to the Cincinnati Reds. There were some opportunities to see Griffey play in Atlanta during interleague at some point with the Mariners, but I went to only two or three games a year growing up. So not great odds, plus we usually went to the less popular games with the slightly cheaper tickets and the smaller crowds. I loved going to games, but looking back, I wish I had seen Griffey. His time with the Reds meant he only came to town one time a season, and sadly there were several lost seasons in Cincinnati due to injuries. Griffey was, and remains, the prototype for what it means to be cool on a baseball field. Jeter was New York cool, suave. Griffey was fun, exciting, and electric. His wiggling batting stance is still mimicked by people today, though admittedly no one else, even in softball leagues can ever hope to hit a ball like he did. Griffey could amaze you and do things that just did not make sense for a player his size. You expected Frank Thomas and Albert Belle to hit the ball a mile, but Griffey at worst hit the ball as far as they did, plus he could run like the wind. Ken Griffey Jr. was a once every few generations type player and I missed him. As great as his highlight reel is, I can only imagine how great it would have been to see him play in person.
Missing several opportunities to see Ken Griffey Jr. makes sense, not seeing Vladimir Guerrero play does not. Guerrero spent 8 of his 16 seasons with the Montreal Expos. Playing in the National League East with the Braves meant I had plenty of opportunities to watch him play, but for whatever reason I never did. It was not from a lack of interest, I just never seemed to go to Turner Field when the Expos were in town. Not sure why, just the way it worked out. Guerrero was a lot like Andruw Jones, great power and speed and a howitzer for an arm. The main difference between Guerrero and Jones was that Guerrero was a more complete hitter and Jones played for Atlanta, not against them. Vladimir Guerrero never met a pitch he could not hit. It reminded me of playing baseball in the street with my brother and friends. If it was within reach, you swung, partly so you did not have to go pick it up and partly because it may be the best pitch you will see. Guerrero never seemed to care if the pitch was a foot outside and head high, he could serve it into the outfield. He could also bloop a ball into short left field after the pitch bounced in front of the plate. Ichiro is a magician in the batter’s box in the sense that he can almost place where he hits the ball. Guerrero is a difference sort of magician as he can hit nearly everything thrown towards the plate, and hit it well. The other thing I missed was seeing Guerrero unleash his arm. There are few players with arms that stop the opponent from even attempting to take an extra base; Rick Ankiel and Jeff Francoeur are the players in recent years that come to mind regarding the fear their arms put into the minds of opposing base runners. Perhaps Vladimir Guerrero was not the best player in terms of doing the conventional things on a diamond the best, though he did them extremely well. What I missed the most in not seeing Guerrero play in person is his ability to leave fans speechless. He could hit or throw a baseball a mile, or single on a pitch that most players could not even reach. Vladimir Guerrero took the sort of baseball that I grew up playing to the Major Leagues and still made it look as amazing as it felt.
The opportunity to see something unique and amazing at a baseball game exists every time the gates open. You could see Matt Cain throw a Perfect Game (as Jesse did in San Francisco), watch the final game at old Yankee Stadium (as John, Jesse, and I did in 2008), or just see a fun game like I have on so many occasions. Baseball is a team sport played by individuals. These individuals are what make the game great. Players of all size can find success on a baseball diamond, whether they are Jose Altuve at 5’6”, Randy Johnson at 6’10”, or Jonathan Broxton at 300 lbs. Great players come in every physical form possible and they are all capable to doing something amazing. Most of us do not have the financial ability to go to every game, but we should all make the time when these elite, once in a generation type players come to town. Continuing to put off going to see Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen, Aroldis Chapman, and others will be a sad memory. There is no guarantee they will do something amazing at the game you attend, but you will still be able to say you saw them play. No one cares if the one game you saw Sandy Koufax pitch he did not win the game, you still got to see Koufax pitch. Do not miss your opportunity to see great players in person. We can all watch highlight reels, but watching in person is always special and you will remember it better than any video.
Don Zimmer will have his #66 retired by the Tampa Bay Rays in a pregame ceremonial before their home opener on April 6th. The Rays may not be the team most associated with Zimmer, but it was the organization that he spent the most time with, 11 seasons, during his 66 year career in baseball. Zimmer was a player, coach, or manager for nearly half of the teams in Major League Baseball. During his career he was a member of the Brooklyn/ Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, New York Mets, Washington Senators, San Diego Padres, Boston Red Sox, Texas Rangers, Montreal Expos, San Francisco Giants, Colorado Rockies, New York Yankees, and Tampa Bay Devil Rays/ Rays. Zimmer also spent a season (1966) playing for the Toei Flyers in Nippon Professional Baseball in Japan.
Zimmer was never an elite player. He hit a career .235, with 91 home runs, 352 RBI. He played more than 100 games only five times during his 12 year career, and was named an All Star in 1961. As a manager Zimmer collected 885 wins in 13 seasons at the helm with four different teams. He won 50.8% of the games he managed. He won his lone Division title with the 1989 Cubs, but lost to the Giants four games to one in the National League Championship Series.
None of the statistics which are associated with Don Zimmer should put him in elite company. However, his longevity and passion for the game do. Few, if anything written about Zimmer reflects negatively on the man. Yes, the local media and fans may have grown tired of his struggles on the field and as manager, but never of his desire to see his team win. Even the incident with Pedro Martinez in 2003 during the American League Championship Series should be seen as Zimmer sticking up for his team, even if his body was not up to the task his brain had in mind. He was sticking up for the Yankees, his guys. His apology afterwards can make a grown man cry, because you can sense the embarrassment he felt as he apologizes to everyone, before he leaves the press conference in tears.
Hopefully, over time this moment will no longer be what most people think of when they think of Don Zimmer. His broad smile and love of the game were on display everyday he put on a uniform. He never had to work a day in his life. Zimmer was the type of person who have propelled baseball through the generations. They allow for a real connection to exist between the past and present. Zimmer’s contribution to the game goes beyond the stat sheet, thus the honor the Rays are giving him in retiring his jersey number is a tribute not only to Zimmer, but also to the other baseball lifers. It is these individuals who, despite not making the world stop and take notice of their accomplishments, are immeasurably important to the game.
Several of the other teams which Zimmer played or worked for during his career could retire his number. The Red Sox, Cubs, and Yankees could have all justified retiring his number, but ultimately it is good that at least one team did retire his number. Regardless how important he was to any single organization, Don Zimmer was more important to the game of baseball. Zimmer spent his life around the game he loved; along the way the game loved him back. Now thanks to the Tampa Bay Rays, he will be loved far into the future even once the people he worked with in baseball are gone. Baseball has shown the epitome of a baseball life the love that the game as a whole can give a man after he spent a life time loving the game.