05/31/2004 8:07 AM ET
Walker hopes for home cooking
Pittsburgh catching prospect wants to play for Bucs
GIBSONIA, Pa. -- Monday, June 7, could turn out to be the sternest test of Neil Walker's ability to balance team goals with individual interests.
By Jonathan Mayo / MLB.com
On the afternoon of June 7, Walker's Pine-Richland High School Rams will be playing in the first round of the Pennsylvania state playoffs. But the switch-hitting catcher is also one of the quickest risers on the draft charts and is expected to be selected in the first round of the First-Year Player Draft on, you guessed it, June 7.
"Oh my, I guess it starts at 1 p.m." said Walker about the draft. "I just hope my name gets called out five minutes after it starts so I can put that in the back of my mind.
"I don't [want to] get somebody from the stands going, 'Hey, Walker, you've been taken blank-and-blank!' while I'm catching in the third inning of the first round of the state playoffs. Hopefully, it'll be behind me and I'll be able to focus on the game at hand and then have a little celebration after the game."
If the whispers along the draft grapevine are any indication, Walker may get his wish. Just a few weeks ago, his name was being mentioned as a solid end-of-first, beginning-of-second-round kind of pick. Now the teams picking in the top third -- including his hometown Pirates, at No. 11 -- are looking closely at him.
The heightened buzz clearly hasn't affected his play. Walker hit .649 with 12 home runs and 37 RBIs in 57 at-bats, then went 2-for-3 with 2 RBIs to lead his team to a league championship on Saturday. Pine-Richland coach Jeff Rojik, who came to the school in Walker's freshman year, knows that it's his job to keep Walker focused on the team's tasks at hand but admits that it hasn't been difficult.
"The other kids get caught up in it," said Rojik. "Neil will say, 'Don't worry about it.' He never says a word about the attention he gets. He's handled it very well, and he's deflected attention to the team. He's very easy to coach."
But even if Rojik couldn't contain it, Walker's home life certainly keeps him grounded. Walker's baseball bloodlines are long. His father, Tom, pitched in the big leagues from 1972 to 1977, and was a first-round pick in 1968. His uncle, Chip Lang, spent two years in the Majors. His older brother Matt spent four seasons in the Tigers organization and is now playing independent ball. Another brother, Sean, played collegiately at George Mason. His sister, Carrie, is also athletic, playing hoops at Wagner.
"He's the youngest in the family," said Rojik. "Not that it gets old for the Walker family, but everyone in the family gets attention. They'll just tell Neil, 'You're just the next in line.' They keep him humble. He's learned a lot from his brothers and sister."
He certainly has learned about preparation. A standout football player who attracted Division I attention, Walker also played basketball every winter until this season. This year he concentrated on getting ready for baseball and saw immediate results. That's a big reason why he's moved up many draft boards this spring.
Though he's athletic enough to play just about any position, Walker has improved enough defensively to stay behind the plate. Even though he admits that his bat is ahead of his glove, he's hoping he's not another one of those athletic high school catchers who are moved once they reach pro ball.
"You can tell the guys who don't want to catch," said Walker. "They're the ones who take foul tips off their shoulder and go down and say, 'This isn't for me.'
"I like that. Coming from football, I kind of like the contact. You don't get much contact out here, so I like it a little bit."
After Saturday's league championship, Walker's team won't play until the first-round playoff game a week later. Normally, a catcher would use that time to rest prepare, but Walker will be visiting big league parks as part of a tour for private workouts as teams try to make final decisions on their first-round selections.
Walker will go to PNC Park to hit for the Pirates, to Camden Yards for the Orioles (No. 8) and then to Jacobs Field for the Indians (No. 6). The Brewers, picking at No. 5, are also reportedly interested in bringing him in for a workout.
"When I step to the plate at PNC Park, the adrenaline's going to be pumping a little bit," admitted Walker. "I'm going to have to calm myself down. It's just another day of BP, just at another park.
"The teams -- Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Baltimore -- the places they want me to go for workouts, they've seen me a lot, and they just want to get me in, get the wood bat in my hands more, let me take some swings, see if I can hit some into the seats -- or possibly the river. Who knows?"
That gets his imagination going a little bit. For Walker, the possibility being able to stay at home to play for the Pirates is almost too good to be true.
"It really is storybook," said Walker, who idolizes Twins rookie Joe Mauer, the former No. 1 pick who was a high school catcher taken by his hometown team. "They like me a lot, and I like them a lot, and I think they would be a good fit for me.
"Whatever happens, happens. If I don't make it to [the 11th pick], then I'm going to have the same attitude and mentality toward whatever team I go to, because it's going to be exciting."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.