Living a Baseball Dream, with Tom and Neil Walker
I am sure the aspiration of many Little League baseball players is to play in the “big” leagues. On the other hand how many fathers dream of watching their son play at the Major League level? This explains why I am envious of my friend Tom Walker. My dreams are his reality!
When Tom, a veteran of six seasons in the MLB, is not on the road for business, he can be found in a seat behind home plate at Pittsburgh’s PNC Park. His son, Neil, is the current starting second baseman for the Pirates. Over the course of baseball history there have been 193 father/son combinations in the Major League. The first was Henry Doscher (father/Brooklyn Athletics) and Jack Doscher (son/Brooklyn Superbas) in 1903.
Tom admits, “It’s a dream come true for our family and for me, getting to participate in Major League baseball again. It’s very fun.”
Neil and Tom Walker share several similarities, both positive and negative during their baseball careers. To start with, they are currently one of the five father/son combinations that were selected in the first round. The others are the Grieves, Swishers, Burroughs and Mayberrys.
Tom’s rise up the professional food chain began in 1968 when he was selected by the Baltimore Orioles in the first round as the ninth pick overall out of Brevard Junior College. Before college, he pitched for the championship team at Chamberlain High School in Tampa, Florida, where Steve Garvey was his teammate. His son Neil was the Pirates’ first round pick, eleventh overall out of Pine- Richland High School in Gibsonia, Pa. in 2004. He was a member of the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League Championship team.
Both Walkers also faced roadblocks during their minor league careers.
Tom pitched in a Baltimore Orioles organization that was loaded with pitching talent. In 1971, the Orioles had four 20-game winners in their starting rotation, featuring McNally, Palmer, Cuellar and Dobson. They became the second team to ever achieve that. The 1920 Chicago White Sox were the first. Due to the rarity of 20-game winners and five man rotations, Baltimore will probably be the last to accomplish this feat.
Seeing the Orioles pitching staff as a roadblock to his career, Tom considered quitting and returning to college after the season. That was before the night of August 4, 1971, when fate intervened. He was pitching for the Dallas-Ft. Worth Spurs of the Texas League against the Albuquerque Dodgers. That night, he won 1-0 by pitching a 15 inning no-hitter.
Tom felt that this game opened many eyes around the Major League. Following the season, the Montreal Expos selected him in the Rule 5 draft. At the age of 23, he made his debut April 23, 1972, pitching an inning against the St. Louis Cardinals. He walked Joe Torre, the first batter he faced, but then got Ted Simmons and Jose Cruz to pop up before retiring Lou Brock on a grounder to third.
Neil also faced roadblocks during this career. He was originally dratted as a catcher after his senior year of high school. At the time, the Pirates already had a couple of young catchers, Ryan Doumit and Ronnie Paulino, so he switched to third base. Unfortunately Jose Bautista and then Andy LaRoche were ahead of him. In addition, the Pirates’ top prospect was Pedro Alvarez who also played the “hot corner.”
Neil was rewarded for leading the Indianapolis Indians (AAA) in batting by being brought up to Pittsburgh on September 1, 2009. Like his father, he made his MLB debut at age 23 like his father. Ironically his dad was there when he was told the news. He remained there for the remainder of the season. He returned to Indianapolis for the following season.
The Pirates acquired Akinori Iwamura for reliever Jesse Chavez during the 2009 off season. Iwamura began the 2010 season as the Pirates’ second baseman. Aki started the season in a horrific batting slump, before he became injured, the Pirates brought Neil Walker up from Indianapolis. He played his first game at second base on May 27, 2010. He would never relinquish his starting job. Although Aki was the highest paid Pirate on the roster, he was released.
Now-a-days Tom does not mind driving the 22 miles from Gibsonia, a suburb of Pittsburgh to PNC Park, because he is enjoying a second major league career vicariously through his son.
He feels that Neil leans on him about his own MLB experience and what it took to get there. They discuss the sacrifices that need to be made and how much time and effort is needed to be a MLB player.
While Neil Walker has embarked upon a promising career, he has company sharing his dream!