I told myself not to start an article about the legendary Larry Walker’s impact in Canada by talking about hockey. But here I am, it’s freezing cold out, and with a Tim Hortons cup in my hand and The Tragically Hip spinning on my turntable, I’m gonna take you to the frozen reaches of Swift Current, Saskatchewan…
No. Come to think of it, I can’t do that to Larry. I can’t do that to us, dammit. Yeah, everyone knows the story of how Larry had aspirations to be an NHL goalie in his youth—the famous 1993 Sports Illustrated cover story about him was positively gleeful in reminding us of that (it fell mercifully short of describing his favourite poutine or asking him what SCTV was, but nevertheless).
I can’t start the article that way because Larry is an entirely different type of Canadiana. Larry, to me, always represented summertime Canada—when the sun falls slow-motion below the slow, glassy waters of a lake in Ontario’s cottage country; when the dry heat of a Saskatchewan summer’s day leads to hose sprinklers soaking the newly-trimmed backyard lawn; and when, all across Larry’s home province of British Columbia, you can hear the crack or ping of bats against baseballs in the countless hundreds of baseball diamonds that nestle against forested backdrops in the suburban pockets of cities built in harmony with sprawling natural environs.
Baseball thrives in British Columbia, and all across Canada. Larry Walker may not be testament to that, but he is damn sure reason for it. So is his provincial fellow, Ladner, B.C.’s James Paxton; and his future Hall of Fame kin, Toronto’s Joey Votto, along with the dozen Big Leaguers and draftees with Big League pedigree and aspirations that hail from North of the 49th. Baseball thrives in an environment whose summer months were tailor-made for it.
Summertime Canadiana is as reminiscent of Field of Dreams as any pocket of Missouri, Florida, or Nebraska that you can conjure up. It is the pristinely packed dirt of the infield, the angle-perfect foul lines rolling out towards chainlink fences that Canadian kids point to in summer nights like ketchup chip-fed Babe Ruths. It’s the parents who show up with sunglasses, sprawling lawn chairs and coolers full of… well, certain stereotypes wink at themselves. In the summer, Canada is a baseball country.
Happy Birthday Larry Walker!
— MLB Stats (@MLBStats) December 1, 2018
Last week, Larry Walker was elected to the Hall of Fame in his final year of eligibility, having seen his vote share arc from a 10.4% nadir in 2014, to 54.6% in 2018, to a squeaky-but-passable 76.6% this year. A further jump of 21% had seemed unlikely last year—which Larry himself acknowledged with his characteristic understated charm—and so baseball writers and pundits across Canada lamented the injustice of it all. Because, no matter what, when you’re a member of a group that feels it doesn’t get its just desserts, you always root for your guy or gal. Canadians were as partisan as it gets when it came to Walker, and we knew it. We share that with the lovely folks of Colorado, whose pundits and purple-clad supporters banged the drum for him to be the first representative of their club to get his enshrinement in Cooperstown. Together, we celebrated the righteousness of it all last week, when the news came through.
And, of course, Larry Walker deserves every bit of bronze in that bust he will grin from forevermore. A career slash line of .313/.400/.565, 383 home runs, 2,160 hits, 7 Gold Gloves—last I checked, Coors Field didn’t have a disproportionate effect on one’s defence—and 5 All-Star appearances. His career WAR was 72.7, which—and I hate to do this, but perspective is necessary—is a touch better than near-unanimous fellow inductee Derek Jeter’s 72.4 rating. At his peak, he was the best all-around outfielder in the Bigs.
I remember the tremor that Walker’s 1997 NL MVP sent across the country. This was the year after Donovan Bailey wiped the Ben Johnson trauma from our national slate with his 100m win at the Atlanta Olympics; the same year Jacques Villeneuve became the first Canadian to win the prestigious Formula 1 World Drivers’ championship. And yet all people wanted to talk about was Larry. He was Canadiana personified, with his understated dignity, aw-shucks smile, and fiery-eyed devotion to his craft. Larry’s dalliance with Canada began early: he was signed as an amateur free agent by the beloved Montreal Expos, with whom he may well have won a World Series in 1994 had the strike not robbed the ‘Spos of their greatest ever team. He became unaffordable for the cash-strapped club in 1995, when he signed a precedent-setting four-year, $22.5 million USD contract to play in the razor-thin Denver air. It was absolutely the right thing to do, and gave Larry a chance to take his rightful place at the forefront of baseball in the late 90’s. At his peak, he was squeaky clean, in an era when that was far from the norm. He was no longer just ‘our guy’—he became Denver’s, and all of baseball’s. And we were more than happy to share him. As a Hall-of-Famer, he is just the second Canadian to proudly take his place amongst the immortals. It is a big deal up here.
— Patrick Lyons (@PatrickDLyons) January 28, 2020
Maple Ridge, B.C. is an undersized suburb in the Greater Vancouver region, resting snug against the Golden Ears and Garibaldi Mountain ranges, which flank its baseball diamonds like hulking green bleachers in the most distant outfield imaginable. It gets warm in the baseball months, and the tempestuous rains for which the Pacific Northwest are well known, mercifully quell at the height of baseball season. Along with Walker, it is well-known as the home of Boston Bruins bruiser and Hall-of-Fame winger Cam Neely. It has a few pubs, a mall, and a disproportionate number of sports parks.
One of those many multipurpose grass fields in Maple Ridge is Larry Walker Field. It’s built against a backdrop of cookie-cutter suburbia, and shares the unassuming Hammond Stadium with a pair of unlined soccer fields which I remember playing on as a kid. I never played on Larry Walker field’s baseball diamond. Neither, mind you, did many other kids. Larry Walker became baseball in Canada, and particularly in BC, and fields like his are his legacy.
Former Colorado Rockies pitcher Jeff Francis said it best: “If you went to a provincial championship, he was on your T-shirt. Or if you went to play in Maple Ridge, you were playing at Larry Walker field.” The current swath of Canadian baseball stars—from Votto, Paxton, and Russel Martin—to the next generation of Mike Soroka, Tyler O’Neill, and Nick Pivetta—owe a debt to Larry. Baseball enrolment in Canada continues to grow every year—annual registration percentages have risen by double digit percentages since 2015, and the sport truly appears to be at a zenith in terms of amateur investment, collegiate participation, and professional pipelines. The mid-decade success of the Blue Jays certainly helped this, but so much of this is the echo of guys like Walker and Votto, whose success said to Canadian kids that their BP cuts in Calgary or their ground-ball drills in Port Hope, Ontario could actually lead them to something amazing.
And that they didn’t need to strap on a pair of skates to get there.
Larry Walker by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Zach Ennis (@zachennis on Twitter and Instagram)