ST. LOUIS -- Larry Walker sat in front of his locker on Monday at Busch Stadium, signing a box of baseballs. When asked what was going through his mind on the eve of his first playoff appearance since 1995, the Cardinals right fielder joked, "I'm thinking I wish I didn't have to sign so many baseballs right now."
That's a fact of life, especially when you are Larry Walker and an entire city's population is hoping that you will help lead them to baseball's promised land. Walker has been hugely popular, another autograph must, from the day he came to St. Louis in a trade with Colorado and immediately received a standing ovation for ... striking out.
That's also the kind of brutal honesty you get from the guy who once had a fastball from buddy Randy Johnson zip behind his head at an All-Star Game and proceeded to turn his batting helmet backward and stand in the other batter's box.
"Obviously this is a great team in St. Louis, and they didn't need me here to win the division," Walker said. "I don't know if [the division title] was a bonus for me or what. I know that the last two to three weeks we've been on cruise control. We need to get back in that mode of playing great baseball.
"[On Tuesday] the atmosphere will be a lot different. Games are for real now. We can get it back. We lost three in Houston [last week] and kept playing."
St. Louis opens the National League Division Series at 12:10 p.m. CT on Tuesday against the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Walker doesn't have to be reminded that he is just 1-for-15 in his career against left-hander Odalis Perez, the Dodgers' Game 1 starter. Just being able to face him in the postseason is good enough for Walker.
This is why St. Louis brought him here, not just to help the Cardinals make some playoff noise, but some loud noise. This is a franchise hoping for its first World Series appearance since 1987, just a couple of years before Walker's career began as a Canadian native playing in his home country for the Expos. The annual October fishing trip has been fun, but Walker has been waiting a long time for that chance to suit up for the playoffs -- and yes, even if it means signing baseball after baseball before slipping on the jersey.
Walker had been to the playoffs only once before in a Major League career that started in 1989, and that was in his first year with the Rockies in 1995, when the club became the first NL team to be anointed as a Wild Card. Atlanta won the Division Series in four games en route to a World Series title, and during that series, Walker was 3-for-14 (.214) with a home run. It was all she wrote, until now. By comparison, Chipper Jones has gone to the playoffs every year for Atlanta since Walker's Rockies lost to Jones' Braves.
"It was all kinds of fun," Walker remembered of that playoff experience. "It was the highlight of my career. Getting back isn't easy. It seems like everybody goes to the playoffs in hockey. It's different in baseball.
"I'll start to enjoy it when game time comes, but right now I'm not thinking about anything, really. I try not to get too high or too low. I know what I can do as an individual and I'll be out there to try to help this club win."
Walker actually might have made it to a postseason in back-to-back years, but he never had a chance in 1994. He was having a monster year for Montreal, which arguably was the best team in baseball when the season was terminated in late summer due to labor issues. How many times has he played "what-if" since then?
"It's 2004 and we're still playing it," he said. "It's a question that keeps coming up. It's in the past, it's over. It would have been nice to see what happened, of course."
Ten years later, Walker is making big contributions for a Cardinals club that led the NL in batting. In 44 games after the trade, he batted .280 with 11 home runs and 27 RBIs. He benefited from an immediate tip from Cardinals hitting coach Mitchell Page, who helped Walker square a stance that was open when he arrived. The mere fact that a marquee veteran would be so receptive to such help in a new environment spoke volumes about Walker's character.
Albert Pujols, who will be hitting right behind him in the No. 3 hole, said of Walker: "Adding him is one of the best moves that we have done."
Larry Walker / RF
Weight: 235 lbs
Bats: L / Throws: R
Left fielder Reggie Sanders, who had played seemingly forever against Walker, said of his teammate: "Larry's a horse. He still has the ability, power, defense, he can run and steal and everything. He brings a lot of excitement to this club."
Now comes the real excitement. For Walker, the first playoff opponent is not exactly a stranger.
"Obviously I've seen them a lot more than others have on this team," Walker said. "They were in my division the entire last decade, so that's 19 times a year I've faced them.
"We know we're capable of beating them. There are only three games to win, though, and it could be over in a heartbeat if you aren't careful. The Dodgers are as strong as any other team in the field."
Walker probably will not receive any standing ovations if he strikes out in an at-bat during this series. But while waiting for further highlights, that moment from his Cardinals debut still holds a special place in his memory.
"I was as nervous as I could be," Walker said. "I don't even remember holding the bat. I was scared to death. I struck out, and I got a standing ovation."
Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.