PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – The Pirates’ record of 18-22 is identical to their 40-game record of one year ago.
But, this year, they begin the process of building around a young, core group of players.
One of them is homegrown second baseman Neil Walker.
They say the best thing a kid can do for his parents is to make them proud. If that’s the case, then Walker is a big success already.
Walker was the Pennsylvania player of the year in 2004, and has been living a dream ever since that season when the Pirates made him a number one draft pick,11th overall.
It’s not every western Pennsylvanian kid who grows up as a three-sport start, wins nine letters at Pine-Richland High School, gets selected in the first round by his hometown team and after six hard-working years in the minors, finally gets called up to the big leagues.
Now, he’s a rising star.
“It’s a dream come true,” Neil’s mother, Carolyn Walker said. “It’s a, ‘Where else would I want to play, type thing. Of course I want to play here.’ ”
Walker’s rise has not been mediocre. In fact, just one year ago he appeared to be a prospect without a position, having been a catcher, moved to third base after the Pirates gave $5 million to bring in Aki Iwamura. Nobody would have thought that Walker would have ended up at second base, not even his dad.
“Things happen,” Neil’s father, Tom Walker said. “Opportunities come up, in all sports, in life, and he had an opportunity and made the most of it. If you would have told me that Neil was going to be a second baseman a few years ago, I would have never had believed it.”
When Iwamura failed at his opportunity, Walker jumped at his.
“First base hit, I remember against the Cardinals,” Tom Walker said. “There he is standing next to Albert Pujols, and Albert said to him, ‘Son, you only got 2,999 to go.”
And then his first career home run also turned out to be a game winner at PNC Park against the Chicago Cubs.
Carolyn said, “I remember sitting there and thinking, ‘Can it get any better than this?’ ”
It got better on Opening Day 2011. Walker became only the second Pirate in history to hit a grand slam on Opening Day. The only other guy to do it was Hall-of-Famer Roberto Clemente.
“And Neil will tell you, to put my name with Roberto Clemente, that’s very special to him,” Tom Walker said.
It’s also special for Tom Walker to watch his son join him in the Major League Baseball fraternity. Neil’s dad pitched six years in the majors for the Montreal Expos, and once pitched a 15-inning minor-league no-hitter. But, nothing he did is as special as watching his son in his hometown.
“It’s almost a fairytale story,” Tom Walker said. “There’s been some events along the way like seeing his first home run in the big leagues. And those were all wonderful things, but there were so many things in the minor leagues to get to that point that we watched him go through. There were bumps. I’ve always said the road to success is always under construction, and it has been for him and it still is.”
Carolyn Walker said her son has always had the mentality that this was his goal and he’ll do whatever it takes.