Despite hometown ties, Walker knows time with Pirates likely nearing end
During the season when the Pirates are in town, Neil Walker has a Sunday night habit. He takes a postgame shower and dresses quickly in the clubhouse, then makes the easy, half-hour drive to his parents' home in the North Hills.
There, his wife, brothers and sister and their kids gather for dinner. It is family time. Baseball usually is not discussed.
It's a tradition Walker longed for when he was in the minor leagues, living on his own in small apartments in distant towns.
Lately, though, Walker has begun to wonder what his life might be like again without those weekly get-togethers in the neighborhood where he grew up. When this season ends, his playing days in Pittsburgh also might be finished.
“I've asked different guys about (switching teams),” Walker said. “The off-the-field things are what kind of churns my brain. I don't spent a lot of time thinking about that, but I definitely am curious as to what it will be like eventually when most likely I'm in a different uniform.”
Walker has one year of salary arbitration eligibility remaining and will become a free agent after the 2016 season. It's possible the Pirates will jump that deadline this offseason by non-tendering or trading him.
“If I could have it my way, I'd be in black and gold for my entire career,” Walker said. “Maybe I'm naive and living in a fantasy world, but I'm going to hold out hope until the day comes that I am absolutely, positively no longer in a Pirates uniform.”
Looking ahead and maybe away
Walker is making $8 million this year. Next season, he can expect to get around $10 million, which the Pirates front office may deem too steep for a 30-year-old with a occasionally cranky lower back. Although the idea of a multiyear contract was broached last winter, talks never gained traction.
Jung Ho Kang, who is out six to eight months after having knee surgery Thursday, likely will be the regular third baseman when he returns.
Josh Harrison, who received a four-year, $27.3 million extension in April, has played a lot lately at second base. Walker was benched for the first two games of an important series this month against the first-place St. Louis Cardinals.
Everyone in the clubhouse can do the math.
“It's going to be hard for (Walker) not to be here next year, for him not to be in a Pirates uniform,” shortstop Jordy Mercer said. “It's going to be weird not to have him around. I hope they're going to do whatever they can to bring him back.”
General manager Neal Huntington knows what kind of reaction to expect from fans when Walker leaves.
“I anticipate it will be incredibly negative because he is a hometown guy and because he's a good player,” Huntington said. “I'll be accused of being tone deaf. But we're not going to shy away from controversial decisions that we believe are the right ones for the organization. … That's the nature of the beast in this industry. It's a bit more challenging when you lose that type of player who has hometown ties.”
A turning point
Walker almost never got a chance to become the Pittsburgh Kid.
A first-round pick in 2004 out of Pine-Richland, Walker figured he had a shot to earn a spot with the Pirates during 2010 spring training. However, he was sent back to the minors about two weeks before the team broke camp.
Instead of being the regular third baseman at Triple-A Indianapolis, Walker also was used at first base and in right field. In early May, he began a crash course at completely foreign position: second base.
Picking up that kind of versatility can ignite a player's career. Sometimes, though, it has other consequences.
“I honestly thought I was going to be traded,” Walker said. “I know for a fact there were three or four teams that had a deal on the table to get me.”
A trade never materialized. On May 25, 2010, after appearing in just 21 games at second base with Indy, Walker was called up to join the Pirates during a road series in Cincinnati. By the end of the month, he was their starting second baseman.
“That was kind of a turning point for my career,” Walker said. “It was like, ‘I'm here, and I'm going to make the most of it.' As a hometown guy, I definitely wanted to make the most of it.”
Given the opportunity, Walker has flourished. He ranks among the top 10 second basemen in Pirates history in nearly every offensive category, including hits, runs, home runs, batting average and on-base plus slugging. Last year, Walker popped a career-best 23 homers and won his first Silver Slugger award.
“One thing I've noticed is how blue collar he is, a hard-nosed player who takes pride in what he does,” first baseman Pedro Alvarez said. “Neil's also a great family man who cares about the right things. A very thoughtful person. To me, that goes a lot farther than anything he does on the field.”
Connected to the community
The Pirates also see the value in what Walker can do off the field as they frequently ask him to make personal appearances throughout the region. On a recent Saturday morning, Walker spent more than an hour signing autographs at a supermarket in Seven Fields.
Walker showed up for a midday interview with a reporter at the team hotel in St. Louis wearing a faded gray Penguins T-shirt, but his ties to Pittsburgh run deeper than his wardrobe.
“He does all the school visits, the hospitals, a lot of stuff that most people don't even see,” said Miami Marlins utilityman Don Kelly, who is Walker's brother-in-law. “He doesn't go around talking about all the stuff he does.”
Beyond his appearances on behalf of the Pirates, Walker and his wife, Niki, do a lot of work with Animal Friends and the Pittsburgh Kids Foundation. He also is a cofounder of the Clint Seymour Play Ball Fund, which promotes youth baseball in Western Pennsylvania. The fund is named in honor of one of Walker's childhood friends who was killed 17 months ago.
“That all comes with being a role model and having a stronger connection to the community than most other guys (on the team),” Walker said. “I feel like it's almost a duty of mine to play my part and give back.”
Walker smiled when he heard the story of how Mario Lemieux once was spotted shopping peacefully at a mostly deserted Ross Park Mall during a blizzard. Former Penn State coach Joe Paterno once said he didn't go to church often in State College because he didn't want his presence to be a distraction during Mass.
As visible as he is, Walker doesn't live like a hermit. A quick trip to the grocery store for milk and cereal can turn into a two-hour jaunt because he will run into a friend of a friend of a friend who wants to chat about the Pirates, but he doesn't mind.
No matter where else he might play or how long his big league career continues, Walker has no desire to live anywhere else.
“I'm a Pittsburgh person,” he said. “I've been to a lot of different places, (but) nowhere else in the country has the same sense of community as the Pittsburgh area. I feel like I've tried to give that blue-collar effort day in and day out for the organization. And I hope that, at the end of the day, I've made people in Pittsburgh proud.”
Father and son
Tom Walker remembers driving to Three Rivers Stadium years ago and hearing his young son, Neil, call out from the back seat: “Did you used to play here, Dad?”
Yes, Tom Walker played in several games on the North Side during the late 1970s as a pitcher for the Montreal Expos and St. Louis Cardinals. He grew up in Florida but moved to Pittsburgh four decades ago after marrying a local girl.
“I want to play here, too,” the boy said.
A few years later, father and son were doing yard work at home on an early-summer afternoon. Neil Walker had grown into a high school baseball star and soon would be chosen by the Pirates in the MLB draft.
This time, it was the father who asked a question.
“Your life is getting ready to change big time,” he said. “You're going from local baseball to the most challenging level. It's going to get tougher. Are you ready for this?”
The young man nodded.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I want to play here, and I want to play in the big leagues here.”
Eleven years later, Neil Walker has become an everyday player with the Pirates and is one of the most popular athletes in a sports-crazed city. The franchise, a laughingstock when Walker was drafted, is on the cusp of clinching its third straight postseason berth.
“It's all worked out like it was a dream he had, like it was a vision he had,” Tom Walker said. “It's been surreal, and it's been wonderful having him around.”