MCT REGIONAL NEWS
By Todd Murray
The Dominion Post, Morgantown, W.Va.
Jan. 25--In many ways, Neil Walker's story sounds too good to be true.
It's the tale of a Pittsburgh native who grew up cheering for the Pirates and idolizing All-Star center fielder Andy Van Slyke during the team's glory years in the early 1990s.
It's the journey of a young man who developed into a prep star at Pine-Richland High and savored the thrill of a lifetime when the Pirates selected him 11th overall in the 2004 draft.
Seven up-and-down minorleague seasons -- including position switches from catcher to third base to second base -- followed before Walker earned his ticket home. He moved back into his old bedroom in his parents' house in suburban Pittsburgh in May, when the Pirates summoned him from Class AAA Indianapolis.
Pittsburgh soon installed Walker, 25, as its starting second baseman. He rewarded the Pirates with just seven errors in 105 games at second, a .296 batting average, 12 home runs and 66 RBIs, playing daily in front of family and friends, at PNC Park.
"It was truly remarkable," Walker said Monday during a visit to Damon's Bar and Grill as part of the Pirates' winter caravan. "I feel very fortunate to be able to play in Pittsburgh."
The magnitude of what he accomplished in realizing his lifelong dream of playing majorleague baseball in his hometown never hit him until he had time to reflect this fall.
"People in Pittsburgh assumed when I was drafted I would be in Pittsburgh within two years," said Walker, whose father, Tom, pitched for four majorleague teams in the 1970s. "That obviously wasn't the case. It was very sweet when I was able to hit my first home run at home and on a daily basis have my dad, my mom and my family come to most games."
Outsiders wondered how Walker would handle the pressure of playing in his hometown for a team on its way to a North American sports franchise record 18th consecutive losing season.
Would he try to do too much? Try too hard to impress? Would the strain of it all wear him down and affect his performance on the field? Walker kept such thoughts out of his mind.
"I really felt like being a Pittsburgh person and knowing the blue-collar mentality, I didn't feel pressured," he said. "That stigma has always followed me throughout my minor-league career: When is he going to help there in Pittsburgh? Is he ever going to be able to make it? I never doubted that.