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Toronto Blue Jays pitching coach Bruce Walton, left, speaks with an injured Jesse Litsch at the Blue Jays' spring training baseball facility in Dunedin, Fla. Monday, March 1, 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese (Darren Calabrese)
Toronto Blue Jays pitching coach Bruce Walton, left, speaks with an injured Jesse Litsch at the Blue Jays' spring training baseball facility in Dunedin, Fla. Monday, March 1, 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese (Darren Calabrese)

Walton gets call from the bullpen Add to ...

It was the spring of 1995 and at 32, Bruce Walton was coming to grips with a life that might not include playing baseball for a living.

That is an interesting admission for a man who is entering the most challenging phase of his career in baseball as the new pitching coach of the Toronto Blue Jays.

"At the time, I hated the game," Walton said, looking back at a turbulent time in his life, during a break this week from the Blue Jays' spring training camp at Dunedin Stadium.

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In 1995, Walton was not yet ready to call it quits on a pitching career that had played itself out primarily in the minors with just 27 games in the majors over four seasons with three teams.

At the time, baseball was being brought to its knees by a crippling players' strike that had been launched the previous season and forced the cancellation of the 1994 World Series.

And when it became evident that the strike would also delay the start of the 1995 season, baseball's executive approved the use of replacement players for spring training and the regular season if necessary.

It put pressure on fringe players such as Walton, who was a free agent and wanted to continue his career but was being forced to the sidelines by measures beyond his control.

Walton said he could have been a replacement player, but he had no desire to be branded a scab.

"I didn't want to make a replacement team," Walton said. "Hell, I could have made that. I wanted to make a major-league team and that was it."

Instead, Walton attended a spring training camp in Homestead, Fla., organized by the MLB Players Association for scores of free agents such as himself to be able to keep sharp and hit the ground running once the strike ended.

But when it was finally over and the players returned to their teams, Walton never got a call from any major-league club seeking his services. He never pitched in the majors again.

And for a time that left him bitter.

"Who wouldn't hate the game," Walton said. "There was no major-league baseball and here I am busting my butt, still trying to get back there, or prove I could stay there, and there was nothing to do. There was no team to make. I just didn't like it.

"The game gives you so much at times and it takes so much out of you at times."

Walton caught on with the St. Paul Saints of the independent Northern League after the strike and wasn't sure what his future would hold.

Then, out of the blue, he received a call from Karl Kuehl, the former Blue Jays farm director, who had heard that Walton had exhibited solid coaching traits in trying to extract the best out of young pitchers.

Kuehl wanted to know if Walton would like to become the Blue Jays pitching coach with their rookie-level affiliate club, which at that time was in Medicine Hat, Alta.

"I'd never even heard of Medicine Hat," Walton said, before readily accepting the new challenge.

"Pitching was always No.1 and getting to the big leagues was always my goal," Walton said. "But I always had a pretty good knack of helping guys down in the bullpen while I was playing. And I found I liked that part of the game.

"But it all really came down to one simple question - where did I see myself being 10 years down the road?"

After joining the Blue Jays organization, Walton steadily progressed and in 2002 he was back in the big leagues after being chosen the team's bullpen coach.

At the end of last season, Walton was facing more uncertainty.

The year ended in turmoil with reports over the final weekend series in Baltimore that manager Cito Gaston had lost the clubhouse during a trying, losing season and a housecleaning began.

General manager J.P. Ricciardi was fired and his replacement, Alex Anthopoulos, launched an extensive organizational review to determine who deserved to keep their job.

Gaston survived, although a deal was worked out for him to step down gracefully as manager at the end of this season and move into a consulting role with the club.

Batting coach Gene Tenace retired and the tightly wound Brad Arnsberg, who had been Toronto's pitching coach since 2004, saw the writing on the wall and quit to accept a job in Houston with the Astros.

Walton said it was an excruciating couple of weeks for him sitting at his home in Bakersfield, Calif., waiting to find out if he still had a job.

"From the day the season ended until that phone call from Alex I had no idea what was going on," Walton said. "I knew I was still under contract for another year, which helped because I knew I wasn't in trouble financially to have to sprint out and find a job right away.

"But the not knowing if I was the bullpen coach for the Toronto Blue Jays hurt. It was hard."

During his review, Anthopoulos said he talked with every player and that it was their "unanimous" opinion that they all had confidence in Walton and what he could bring to the team should he be promoted to pitching coach.

"A big part of this game is the mental side and I think players will go through a wall for him," Anthopoulos said. "And I think he knows how to build them up and get them to have confidence in themselves, believing in themselves."

Now that he has landed the top pitching job, Walton's main priority is daunting.

He must try to construct a rotation left crippled by the trade of team ace Roy Halladay, using for the most part young and inexperienced pitchers.

Walton will readily admit that while he believes there is plenty of talent in the mix, he really doesn't know exactly what he has.

"I can't wait to find out," he said.

 

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