Coors Field. It giveth, if you are a hitter. It taketh away, if you are a pitcher. Today, we’ll know for certain what it does to Walker’s Hall of Fame case, writes SNJeffBlair.
Ah, Coors Field. It giveth, if you are a hitter. It taketh away, if you are a pitcher. Today, we’ll know for certain what it does to Larry Walker’s Hall of Fame case.
Until Major League Baseball ordered the humidor put in, the Bombers – Walker, Bichette, Vinny Castilla, Andres Galarraga and honourary member Ellis Burks – pounded out 985 homers. It was just silly: in 1996, the Rockies became the first team to hit 200 homers and steal 200 bases in the same season. The year before, Bichette finished second in NL MVP voting after leading the league in hits (197), homers (40) and RBI (126). In 1997, Walker would win the NL MVP award, the first of three consecutive seasons in which he would post an OPS over 1.000.
“Don Baylor (the Rockies hitting coach) would put us in the last group during BP because he knew that was when the other team’s pitchers would be out stretching,” said Bichette. “And we’d be putting ball after ball out into the upper deck or into the concourses. We were all professional hitters. We all had our routines just like every other team … we’d go the other way and all that stuff. But then the final few rounds … we’d hit balls where only our group could hit balls.”
It was an eclectic group. Walker joined on a four-year, $22.5-million contract after the Expos didn’t offer him a contract following the 1994 players strike, part of a whirlwind teardown that saw the team trade Ken Hill, Marquis Grissom and John Wetteland in a matter of hours. Bichette was traded to the Rockies at age 29 by the Milwaukee Brewers for Canadian Kevin Reimer; Castilla was the 40th pick in the 1992 expansion draft; Galarraga arrived as a free agent on an $850,000 contract before inking a four-year, $12 million deal.
Back then I was covering the Expos for the Montreal Gazette, and I can remember Alou talking about an upcoming trip to Coors Field a week in advance, worrying about the impact on his pitchers’ psyche and health. Alou had managed in Denver in 1981 while in Montreal’s minor league system and it was his Expos who were the Rockies’ opponents in their first-ever home games as an expansion team in 1993. The teams combined to score 57 runs over a three-game series, with the Rockies winning the final game 19-9. Due to a hamstring strain, Walker was limited to one pinch-hit appearance in that series.
Baseball writers have always loved the quintessential Canadian aspect of Walker’s career – failed junior hockey star becomes his country’s best baseball player ever – but let’s be clear: despite the fact that Walker broke in with the Expos and won a pair of Gold Gloves and made an All-Star appearance with them, the legend blossomed in Denver.
I guess if the narrative was perfect, we’d say that Walker was the good old, modest Canadian hockey player, working away to craft a baseball career and overcoming the limitations placed on him by geography. Except that wasn’t the case. When it came to baseball he was a natural. Tony La Russa managed Walker in his final season with the St. Louis Cardinals and called him one of the most instinctive and naturally gifted players he’d ever managed.
Bichette, who hit 201 of his 217 career home runs in the seven years he played with the Rockies, said: “To me, the basepaths are where you judge instinctive players. I mean, everybody can look ugly at home plate sometimes, you know? Larry was the fastest and smartest and best baserunner I saw. Effortless. The game was just so, so slow for him and he was so quick mentally.”
At the plate, Bichette said that Walker had “the holy grail, the ability to hit for real power to all fields. As a hitter, he had it all. Bat speed. Hand-eye coordination. Instincts. I saw him walk off a game with a bunt. When he was right I called him a ‘three-fifty’ hitter: 150 RBI, 50 home runs and 50 stolen bases.”
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SNJeffBlair He won Gold gloves in Coors Field. If it taketh away as a hitter, it should giveth as a fielder. If Larry Walker does not make it into the hall of fame, not only will Larry Walker have been screwed, but baseball as a entity will have been screwed.
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