By Neil Corbett
Larry Walker, considered by many the greatest Canadian ball player of all time, was back on the diamond in his hometown on Thursday night.
Walker threw out the ceremonial first pitch to open the pee wee and bantam AA provincial championships, hosted by Ridge Meadows Minor Baseball over the long weekend.
He told the boys who might have dreams of playing pro baseball: “This is where it starts. This is where you get all your work in, all your practice in, listening to your coaches, listening to your parents, and competing and just getting after it, and that’s what I did.”
Then he graciously posed for photos and signed balls, caps and shirts until the last fan was satisfied.
He’s a rare sight in Maple Ridge, but says he visits his father Larry Walker Sr. and the rest of his family two or three times a year.
“I have a cabin I come back here to visit, to enjoy the B.C. weather and people and family. It’s hard not to come back – this is home.”
Walker keeps a low profile, but still grabs headlines once in awhile. It made national news in Canada when he bowled a perfect game, and Fox Sports grabbed the story south of the border.
He tweeted it out on his Twitter account @Cdnmooselips33: “I must share with all. Bowl in a league and tonight got my first perfect game!! 300! Never thought possible. #baskinginmyglory.”
“I’m in a men’s 10-pin league back in Florida, where I live.”
“I’ve been bowling 10-pin now for I think five years, It’s something different.”
Most Canadians baseball fans will see him out on the diamond as a coach with Team Canada. He said he is enjoying his work with Baseball Canada, and can see a tremendous growth in the game in the country since when he first began his career in 1989 with the Montreal Expos.
“It has graduated to a different level now. It’s evident what you see at the Major League level, what talent comes out of Canada, and the team you can put together with Canadians. We don’t just put together a mediocre team we can put together an all-star team.”
He spent some time working with a Tyler O’Neill, an up-and-coming great prospect from Maple Ridge.
“We had a blast at the Pan Am Games, winning the gold medal with him there, and he had some huge hits for us there.
Tyler O’Neill is hitting .305 with 19 home runs and 79 RBI through 374 at bats with the double A Jackson Generals of the Southern League, farm team of the Seattle Mariners. He is second in home runs, fourth in average and leads the league in RBI – and with his great production coming at just 21 years of age, he has established himself as a top prospect.
“He’s one of those guys that’s got really untapped ability. How far he wants to go with it is going to be up to him, because it’s all right there,” said Walker.
He said the key for O’Neill will be to “stay within himself, and not get bigger than the game itself, then he will be very successful.”
Could the Seattle Mariners slugger have a shot at breaking his career mark of 383 home runs? It’s the best total by a Canadian player.
“I hope every kid that comes up breaks all my records – that’s what they’re there for. If that’s the case, then kids are doing well from Canada, and then that makes me happy.”
He said the guy people should talk breaking his home run mark is the Cincinnatti Reds star first baseman.
“Joe Votto will have a shot, going the way he’s going,” he said.
“Tyler is more than welcome to take them all on.”
He’ll have his hands full. The 49-year-old Walker played for the Montreal Expos, Colorado Rockies and St. Louis Cardinals, retiring in 2005 after. His career batting average was .313, and he won three National League batting titles in 1998, 1999 and 2001. He was a five-time all-star, seven-time gold glove winner and won the National League MVP award in 1997 for an incredible season in which he hit 49 home runs.
Walker was talked into throwing out the first pitch by his father, Larry Walker Sr., who is the minor association’s umpire in chief, and a frequent presence behind the plate.
His famous son isn’t surprised to see his father still at the ball park, at the age of 78.
“Most get older, he’s getting younger,” he said.
“He enjoys being out here and he’s been doing this voluntarily for so long now that it’s incredible. The community owes him a lot for what he’s done.”