When Larry Walker packed up his car for his first spring training in 1985, he didn’t expect to be embarking on a path that would lead him to the National Baseball Hall of Fame 34 years later.
The Maple Ridge, B.C., native – just two years removed from giving up on a hockey dream – barely even knew the rules of baseball back then.
“I had no idea,” Walker said Tuesday on a conference call shortly after learning he had been elected into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstow, N.Y. “As I signed that contract and drove down to Florida to go to spring training and play baseball, I never knew the rules of the game or much about the game.
“You know, I (was) a hockey player. You grow up in Canada that’s what’s in your blood and veins and so baseball was something I had to learn along the way. Once I figured it all out and learned how to play and became more successful, then the road became a little bit clearer of what the possibilities were if I was able to be successful.”
Walker’s successes were plentiful: three batting titles, five Gold Gloves, five all-star appearances, a National League MVP award. And soon, a plaque in Cooperstown.
Walker received 76.6 per cent of the vote by members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America in his 10th and final year on the ballot, narrowly surpassing the 75 per cent required for induction by just six votes.
There were times he thought he might not get there, though. The 53-year-old expressed doubts in a tweet earlier in the day.
“That was just how I felt and I shared that with all honesty,” said Walker, who had received just 54.6 per cent of the votes last year. “And then the call comes. … that number popped up on the phone and I think I uttered the words ‘oh (expletive),’ and maybe an ’oh my God’ or whatever it was before I actually answered the phone and said hello.
“And just to hear them ask if they could speak to Larry Walker, and the rest was almost in disbelief to hear them say ‘you didn’t come up short this year, you passed the 75 per cent threshold and welcome to the Hall of Fame.’ Pretty amazing.”
The former Colorado Rockies and Montreal Expos slugger will become just the second Canadian elected to the Hall. Pitcher Fergie Jenkins of Chatham, Ont., was inducted in 1991.
The 77-year-old Jenkins sent Walker a congratulatory message on Twitter moments after the announcement.
“As the first Canadian Hall of Famer ever inducted, I couldn’t be prouder and happier to welcome my friend and fellow Canadian Larry Walker to the Hall!” Jenkins said.
Walker, the 1997 NL MVP, is joined in this year’s induction class by New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, who amassed 99.7 per cent of the vote. Jeter fell short of a unanimous ballot by just one vote in his first year of eligibility.
The induction ceremony will be held in Cooperstown on July 26.
Walker, a career .313 hitter over 17 seasons, including 10 with Colorado, said he watched this year’s vote results “religiously” unlike in his previous nine years on the ballot.
“This year had a chance, the other years didn’t,” the former outfielder said. “These last two weeks, three weeks … seeing what was going on and watching peoples’ votes come in and just sitting there looking at it, watching the number stay around 85 (per cent) past 200 votes, it honestly got me interested because there was a chance. In past years that never existed.”
Walker hit an eye-popping .366 with a league-best 49 homers, 46 doubles and a career-high 130 runs batted in during his MVP season. His .452 on-base percentage that year, as well as his .720 slugging, also topped the NL.
Walker signed with the Expos as an amateur free agent as a 17-year-old in 1984, five years before Canadians were first eligible for the MLB draft.
His shift to baseball came after Walker had been cut from a junior hockey team.
“I think I would probably be missing a few more teeth, there’s one thing,” Walker said when asked how his life would be different had he stuck to hockey. “And I don’t know if the success would have been there in hockey as it turned out in baseball so there’s probably a better chance that maybe I would be back home in Maple Ridge doing some kind of a job there and this kind of conversation would never be happening, honestly.
“It was a decision I made pulling into a town in British Columbia and deciding I just didn’t want to do it no more. … The Montreal Expos signed me and I got that chance and I just kinda rolled with it.”
Walker made his MLB debut in 1989 and played six seasons with Montreal before signing a free-agent deal with Colorado. He capped his career with 144 games over parts of two seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals from 2004-05.
Congratulatory messages poured in for Walker on social media from across Canada, including a nod from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“He’s in! From the Montreal Expos all the way to the Baseball Hall of Fame – congratulations,” Trudeau tweeted.
Joey Votto also released a statement through the Cincinnati Reds’ Twitter account.
“Larry not only will represent the Rockies, Expos and Cardinals organizations in Cooperstown, but as the greatest Canadian position player ever, he represents an entire country,” Votto said. “This is a very well deserved achievement. My sincerest congratulations.”