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.”
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.