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.
"Through the good times and the bad times, I always felt I belonged here in Pittsburgh and was going to help here. It would be unfair to myself to put the pressure on my shoulder to do something single-handedly I'm not capable of. I know I'm a big part of this organization. At the same time, I just want to win. I'm going to prepare myself to the fullest, but I just want to win. I'm not worried about the pressure that comes with that. I'm looking forward to playing better baseball and getting winning baseball back in Pittsburgh."
Teammate James McDonald discovered early on that Walker was one of the team's leaders. The Pirates acquired McDonald -- a right-handed pitcher -- in a late-season trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Walker warmly welcomed him to the club.
"He was one of the guys who would come talk to me if I was on the mound and he saw something in a batter or if he had a thought," McDonald said. "He would tell me and give me hints on a hitter, and it really would help. He wasn't afraid to step up and kind of tell you if he saw something. He was kind of like a leader on the field."
Tim Neverett followed Walker's rookie season from the Pirates' broadcasting booth. He knows Walker better than most. They live in the same neighborhood, and Neverett's kids attend Walker's alma mater, Pine-Richland. Walker came to a football practice this fall and said hello to Neverett's son.
"When Neil first came up two seasons ago, he started against the Reds in Cincinnati," Neverett said. "He was due to come up and play well. His first at-bat, he should have had a hit. Brandon Phillips made an All-Star play to rob him of a hit.
"This past May, the way he was playing in Triple-A, you knew something had to happen. All of a sudden, here he is, and he just didn't stop hitting. By June, July, you were starting to expect things from him in clutch situations. It was really fun to watch."
Walker's handling of the move to second base was perhaps his most impressive accomplishment. He'd never before played the position at any level before spring training.
Before spring training a year ago, he talked with Pirates' general manager Neal Huntington about playing the outfield, third base, first base and catcher. They agreed he would try second as well, working with Pirates' Hall of Famer and former second baseman Bill Mazeroski, along with Pittsburgh's minor-league instructors.
Walker bounced around at different positions at the start of the 2010 season, in Indianapolis. When the Pirates called him up in May, Walker played a few games at third before Pittsburgh jettisoned disappointing second baseman Aki Iwamura.
Walker moved into the starting role at second and never gave it up. His proficiency at the position surprised everyone, including Walker.
"I had a lot of great help from teammates and the coaching staff," he said. "They made it to the point where I could just go out and play as opposed to be thinking all the time. That helped out a lot. I feel real comfortable around the bag, but there are a lot of things that still need improvement. I'm fortunate to have all of spring training to get ready."
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(c) 2011, The Dominion Post, Morgantown, W.Va.
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