Is Larry Walker worthy of the Baseball Hall of Fame?
The square next to his name will be marked on the ballot I’m faxing to New York this afternoon. A three-time batting champion, a winner of seven Gold Gloves, an amalgamation of power and speed who hit 49 homers and stole 33 stolen bases in 1997 – his MVP season – Walker had no flaws but some bad luck that contributed to a string of injuries.
Larry Walker, it seems to me, is as strong a Hall candidate as anybody. And yet a year ago, Walker’s first appearance on the ballot drew only 118 votes out of a possible 581, which is to say 463 baseball writers – about 80 percent of the electorate – considered Walker’s career achievements lacking.
I was one of those voters, and it’s fair to ask: Why didn’t I include Walker on my ballot in 2010?
Casual answer: I could only vote for 10 players, and I believed the 10 I selected had better credentials than Walker.
More accurate answer: I don’t remember.
If that sounds flippant, I’m sorry, but it’s the truth. I can’t recall any reason why I dismissed Walker. I can’t recall why I didn’t even see him as a borderline candidate.
This troubles me, because I regard my Hall-of-Fame vote as a precious privilege. And while the now annual speculation about drug cheaters on the ballot has taken some of the fun out of voting – actually, it’s taken all of the fun out of voting – I still devote time and effort to the process.
I want to be able to defend my selections with an explanation more substantial than “A Hall-of-Famer either has it or he doesn’t, and he passed the ‘It Factor.’ ” Conversely, I want to be able to offer reasons for denying a candidate – reasons that aren’t muddled by a subjective bias.
Back to Larry Walker: My interview opportunities with him were limited to the occasional All-Star media day session, but he struck me as somebody who never forgot the game should be fun. Maybe that was because the Maple Ridge, B.C., native was a late-bloomer – he aspired to be a hockey goaltender – who didn’t realize his baseball potential as a teenager and, thus, avoided the burnout syndrome.
Walker’s hockey background contributed to his superior athleticism. He was fast and agile and strong, with an arm that gave base-runners pause as he tracked down liners in right field.
As a hitter with the discipline to lay off pitches he couldn’t drive, he was a left-handed version of Edgar Martinez. Their career numbers almost mirror each other.
Martinez: A .312 batting average, 2,247 hits in 2,005 games.
Walker: A .313 batting average, 2,160 hits in 1,998 games.
Martinez had the edge in on-base percentage (.418 to .400), Walker had the edge in slugging percentage ( .565 to .515).
The knock on Walker was that he enjoyed his prime seasons in Denver, where batters took advantage of Coors Field’s deep gaps until the commissioner’s office approved the use of humidors to deaden the flight of baseballs hit at mile-high altitude.
True, Walker’s home-and-road splits were ridiculous – in 1999, he hit .348 in Denver, and .278 away – but to dwell on Walker’s affinity for Coors Field is to forget that he became a feared offensive presence in Montreal.
During his final season with the Expos, in 1994 – the strike year – Walker hit a league-high 44 doubles in 103 games. If labor strife doesn’t shut down baseball, it’s conceivable Walker could have challenged Earl Webb’s single-season doubles record of 67, set in 1931.
But that’s a stat left for the imagination. Here’s what we do know:
Larry Walker, playing home games in a park not known for its generous dimensions, hit .322 in 1994, three years before he hit .366 with the Rockies.
He’s marked on my ballot.
So are these guys:
Barry Larkin: The 12-time Reds All-Star shortstop might be the only candidate who makes it to Cooperstown next summer.
Jeff Bagwell: Those rumors about how his career numbers – specifically, 449 home runs – were inflated by performance-enhanced drugs? They remain rumors.
Edgar Martinez: He hit as well as Walker, with half of Walker’s speed.
Fred McGriff: He finished among the top 10 in the MVP vote six times.
Tim Raines: He stole 808 bases, with a success rate of 84.7 percent.
Alan Trammell: Perhaps the most underrated Hall-of-Fame candidate ever. The peerless Tigers shortstop hit over .300 seven different seasons, but only drew the support of 33 percent of the voters last year.
Dale Murphy: Not only was he baseball’s best overall player during his MVP seasons of 1982 and 1983, he was baseball’s best overall person. If Murphy had retired a few years sooner – he finally quit in 1993 – he’d already have a plaque in Cooperstown.
That leaves me with eight, and I usually vote for the maximum of 10.
I’ve got a few more hours to contemplate the legacies of longtime holdovers Jack Morris, Lee Smith and Don Mattingly, as well as the work of first-year candidate Bernie Williams.
I regard the Hall-of-Fame vote seriously – as I was saying, it’s an honor – which only underscores the travesty of snubbing Larry Walker last year.
Won’t get fooled again.