Edit ModuleEdit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Neil Walker is a Homer

The Pirates' slugger opens up about the clubhouse, the new manager and his humble "entourage."



 

This is not a puff piece, and Neil Walker cares not for your misery. He is not the white knight of the Pittsburgh Pirates, despite batting in as many runs as Albert Pujols after last season’s All-Star Break. He is not the second-coming of legendary second baseman Bill Mazeroski, despite being tutored on the angles and instincts of the position by Maz himself. He is simply Neil Walker, a three-sport star from Pine-Richland who scratched and clawed his way up the Pirates’ minor-league ladder for five-plus years until one day in 2009 when he drove through the Fort Pitt Tunnel the same way he had for 20 years.

At the end of the flickering tube, the floating skyline exploded against a bright summer sky the same way it always had—the way it did when he made pilgrimages with his father to cheer on Andy Van Slyke, his favorite Pirate. Only now, the ballpark sitting low below the bridges on the bank of the Allegheny was his ballpark, his playground.

Walker jumped the railing, turned his Pirates’ cap into, well, his Pirates’ cap, by sheer force. The boy’s got meat-and-pierogies strength and the kind of power that can tear the cover clean off the ball, literally.

Well, almost. After Walker hit his first major-league home run at PNC Park last June, the security staff retrieved the ball by bartering with the Cubs fan who caught it. That gave his new teammates the perfect opportunity for sleight-of-hand. When Walker returned to his locker after the game, he found a ball signed “Walker, first MLB HR.” This was a routine keepsake—except for one thing: The stitches were destroyed. For a split-second, Walker thought he had pulled some next-level Bluto theatrics.

“The ball was all ripped up. It looked like a dog chewed it,” he says. “They had me going for about five seconds. Then I looked around, and people were laughing at me.”

Laughter is the sweetest sound in sports. Soon after Walker went yard in 2010, it grew all too quiet in the clubhouse. There was a lot of thinking going on. This season, something feels different. The baggage has been tossed like it flew on Delta.

“We’re not going to look back,” Walker says. “We’re not going to carry the weight of the past 18 seasons on our shoulders. People are going to tell us we can’t. Well, we’re not worried what anyone’s saying. We’re having fun.” Though the team carries a sub .500-pound monkey on their back, you wouldn’t know it from a view in the clubhouse, where players celebrate victories by firing up a playlist of pop starlets like Ke$ha. “It’s the most feminine music you can imagine,” Walker laughs, blaming DJ Joe Beimel and his sidekick Matt Diaz for the goofy ambiance. “You have to have that camaraderie. You can’t be serious all the time.”

The clubhouse’s aura is striking, indeed. Made up of an odd mishmash of vets and freshmen, last year’s squad had the swagger of a World of Warcraft shut-in. Too often, they mubbled and shrugged and huffed their way through slumps. They’re loose. They’re cagey. It’s in the eyes. The young stars, Walker especially, look like they’re trying to belt line drives instead of trying to derive linear algebra. The key is to keep it simple, which Walker does by pretending he’s wearing green and white instead of black and gold.

“I try to imagine I’m playing in a glorified Pine-Richland High School baseball game,” Walker says. “My parents come to 75 percent of the home games. Of course, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t recognize the pressure, but there has been pressure since the time I was drafted. When it gets too crazy, I go fishing to calm down.”

It also helps that the locker room has been infused with positivity under the auspices of silver-haired, sunbaked spitfire Clint Hurdle. The new manager is a far cry from the lifeless expressions of the departed John Russell, whose reign in the dugout would've had a Weekend at Bernie’s vibe except for the slight bob of Russel’s chin while vacantly chewing sunflower seeds.

“With Clint, there’s no guessing game,” Walker says. “There’s no wondering what he thinks of you. In comparison to last year, I feel like we’re a much more relaxed team on and off the field.” Some of that vitality comes from the freedom Hurdle gives his players. He gives them a license to fail, so long as they go out guns blazing. Walker loves the attitude.

“What better way to see what a team’s made of than to have them be extra aggressive?” he says. “Let’s bunt with guys in scoring position, let’s steal bases, let’s go from first to third on ground balls to the outfield, let’s hit and run. That’s Clint’s philosophy, and it instills confidence in the entire team.”

Walker is bullish about the near future. “When we play the Phillies, when we play these teams with rich traditions, the difference between us and them is not very much,” he says. “It’s really not. The experience level is glaring, but we are very close.”

If anyone has the tenacity to lead the Pirates back from the brink, why not a Pittsburgh kid? There’s only one drawback to living the dream in your own backyard: “I’ve got three buddies from home who know my stats more than I do,” Walker says. “They certainly let me know when things are going good or bad. My grandmother is pretty good at that, too. If I curse on TV or do anything bad, she lets me have it.”

 

Pre-game ritual:
I’m OCD. My locker has to be set up a certain way. Pants, T-shirts and shoes have to be lined up just right.

Closest pals on the team:
Pedro Alvarez and Joel Hanrahan.

Teammate who would look the best rocking an old-school Barry Bonds earring on throwback night:
Andrew McCutchen would look great with one of those.

Strangest thing a fan has yelled from the stands:
Actually, I threw an opposing fan a ball during batting practice, and he threw it back at me.

Worst thing about moving out of his parents' house last year:
I miss my buddy: our Australian Shepherd, Brisby. It would be the laundry service, but my fiancee is doing a pretty good job with that. ... Still, my mom was the best.

Best advice for baseball players growing up in Pittsburgh:
There will always be people who tell you that you can’t. They told me I couldn’t make it. You’re behind the 8-ball because of a lack of exposure, but it is possible. Strive to prove the doubters wrong, and nothing will stand in your way.

 

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow TagsEdit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags

The Latest

They Prayed to Our Lady of the Roller Coaster

Two local priests –– riding the Phantom's Revenge to promote Catholic Day at Kennywood –– create a viral video. Along the way they deliver a most unusual sermon.

The Homestead Artist with a Worldwide Reputation

Jesse Best maintains a presence in New York and Tokyo. But, he says, Pittsburgh has been 10 times better to him than any other place.

The 400-Word Review: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

The fifth "Jurassic Park" film is fun. Empty, somewhat disappointing fun.

Local Brewery Resolves Trademark Dispute With Sass

After Pitt ordered Voodoo Brewery to stop production of its "H2P American IPA," the company relaunched the beer under a new name.

Sprout Fund Passes the Torch

50 Pittsburghers to receive $1,000 Legacy Award to carry on the nonprofit’s vision.

Pirates Can Be Show Stoppers if They Follow Brault's Lead

A Broadway musical about the life and times of the Pittsburgh Pirates? The idea might not be as farfetched as you think.

Pirates Pitcher Steven Brault has Pretty Good Pipes Too

The Pirates reliever sang the national anthem Tuesday night before the Bucs hosted the Brewers at PNC Park. It's worth watching, especially for his teammates' reaction at the end.

Crime in the South Side Has Fallen Dramatically

Illegal activity plunged along East Carson Street following several new security measures.

Fired by City Paper — Charlie Deitch Won’t Be Silenced

The former editor of the Pittsburgh alt-weekly is creating his own "more inclusive" publication.

Czechoslovakia was Forged in Pittsburgh

Rick Sebak details how the establishment of the European nation began with a meeting Downtown.

Brick by Brick: Legos Go High Art

Made entirely out of Legos, the sculptures on the display at the Carnegie Science Center’s new Scaife Exhibit Gallery range from the whimsical to the otherworldly.

Mike Chen, Dean of the Chinese Kitchen

The owner of Everyday Noodles looks to encourage more regionally specific Chinese food in Pittsburgh restaurants.

MultiStories: Real Estate – The Machesney Building

Visitors can still ogle the lavish marble and bronze interior crafted to appeal to the original owner's banker and stockbroker tenants.

The Other Moving Documentary About a Curious Pittsburgher

In "Will Work For Views," the video artist and musician Weird Paul is a little bit Dr. Demento and a little bit Mister Rogers.

Pittsburgh Might Mow Your Lawn for Free

The city is launching a free grass cutting service for the elderly, disabled and veterans.
Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags


They Prayed to Our Lady of the Roller Coaster

They Prayed to Our Lady of the Roller Coaster

Two local priests –– riding the Phantom's Revenge to promote Catholic Day at Kennywood –– create a viral video. Along the way they deliver a most unusual sermon.

Comments

Local Brewery Resolves Trademark Dispute With Sass

Local Brewery Resolves Trademark Dispute With Sass

After Pitt ordered Voodoo Brewery to stop production of its "H2P American IPA," the company relaunched the beer under a new name.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
What Anthony Bourdain Meant to Me

What Anthony Bourdain Meant to Me

Reflecting on the loss of a person so many of us admired.

Comments

Northeast Kitchen Brings Northeastern Chinese Cuisine to Pittsburgh

Northeast Kitchen Brings Northeastern Chinese Cuisine to Pittsburgh

Chef You Shan Pei comes to Pittsburgh after cooking in Flushing, N.Y. restaurants for 18 years.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
The Five Best Spots to Get Pittsburgh-Themed Merchandise

The Five Best Spots to Get Pittsburgh-Themed Merchandise

Looking to show off your Pittsburgh love? Get your favorite city printed on basically anything at these local shops.

Comments

7 Best Pittsburgh-Area Places You Should Try for Doughnuts

7 Best Pittsburgh-Area Places You Should Try for Doughnuts

When you're craving the real deal, these local spots consistently churn out the very best.

Comments


The Other Moving Documentary About a Curious Pittsburgher

The Other Moving Documentary About a Curious Pittsburgher

In "Will Work For Views," the video artist and musician Weird Paul is a little bit Dr. Demento and a little bit Mister Rogers.

Comments

Man, There's a Lot Going on at Zone 28

Man, There's a Lot Going on at Zone 28

The relaunched entertainment complex in Harmarville is casting a wide net, with some success.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Pirates Can Be Show Stoppers if They Follow Brault's Lead

Pirates Can Be Show Stoppers if They Follow Brault's Lead

A Broadway musical about the life and times of the Pittsburgh Pirates? The idea might not be as farfetched as you think.

Comments

Olczyk Embraces Awareness, Understanding to Fight Cancer

Olczyk Embraces Awareness, Understanding to Fight Cancer

Olczyk found out last August, in the wake of a six-hour surgery that removed 14 inches of his colon and “a tumor the size of my fist,” the severity of what he was suddenly confronting.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
The 400-Word Review: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

The 400-Word Review: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

The fifth "Jurassic Park" film is fun. Empty, somewhat disappointing fun.

Comments

The 400-Word Review: Won't You Be My Neighbor?

The 400-Word Review: Won't You Be My Neighbor?

The documentary about Fred Rogers' work and philosophy inspires even more wonder about the television legend who called Pittsburgh home.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Toppers That Take the Cake

Toppers That Take the Cake

Over the traditional bride and groom standing on top of your cake? Try some of these different ideas for cake toppers.

Comments

Couple Shares Photo Spotlight With Four-Legged Friends

Couple Shares Photo Spotlight With Four-Legged Friends

This Pittsburgh couple is using their engagement photos to raise awareness about one of their most passionate causes.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
PPG Paints Unveils 2019 Color of the Year: Night Watch

PPG Paints Unveils 2019 Color of the Year: Night Watch

Paying homage to the restorative power of nature, this deep green shade is one to watch in the coming year. Here’s how to use it on your walls.

Comments

Five Pittsburgh-Based Etsy Shops You Need to Know About

Five Pittsburgh-Based Etsy Shops You Need to Know About

From furniture to wall art and beyond, these local makers created one-of-a-kind pieces for your home or office.

Comments