SPORTS

THE HOMEGROWN HERO

A B.C. ATHLETE POWERS THE MONTREAL EXPOS

BARRY CAME August 24 1992
SPORTS

THE HOMEGROWN HERO

A B.C. ATHLETE POWERS THE MONTREAL EXPOS

BARRY CAME August 24 1992

THE HOMEGROWN HERO

SPORTS

A B.C. ATHLETE POWERS THE MONTREAL EXPOS

The chant usually begins the moment the large young man with the number 33 on his jersey steps into the batter’s box. “Larreee,” the crowd

shouts in unison, repeating the cry until it reverberates around the oval interior of Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. On most nights, the big fellow responds with a long, looping swing of the bat that splays baseballs all over the outfield—and often beyond. When he does, the

delirious fans leap to their feet for a standing ovation that refuses to subside until he doffs his cap in appreciation. In Larry Walker, Quebecers and their Expos have discovered a new sports hero, a six-foot, three-inch, 215pound 25-year-old with a natural talent for baseball that is as awesome as the scenery in his native British Columbia and as deep as his roots in the province’s Fraser River Valley.

In the opinion of most experts,

Walker possesses rare baseball gifts—a combination of raw offensive power and intelligently employed defensive speed. “In the outfield, Larry may already be as smart and as good as Willie Mays,” says Expos Manager Felipe Alou. “At the plate, the kid has so much talent that he is still in the process of learning how to put it all together.” Walker may still be learning but he has mastered the art well enough to have turned himself into the Expos’ primary offensive threat this season. Walker leads the team in home runs, with 18, and runs batted in, 63.

His power, coupled with the sparkling skills he has displayed patrolling right field, are two of the main reasons for Montreal’s

surprising success this year, both on the field and at the box office. The young outfielder, in his second full major-league season, won a place on the 1992 All-Star team. And that particular accomplishment will push his 1992 income in salary and bonuses over $1 million.

It is all a long way from the sandlots in Maple Ridge, a Fraser River community of 25,000 about 40 km east of Vancouver. There was nothing unusual about his family, except for a certain rhythmic profusion of names. His fa-

ther, also Larry, married Mary. They had four sons—Barry, Carey, Gary and, the youngest, Larry. “To tell you the absolute truth, I’m still not exactly sure how all that happened,” Mary Walker confessed during a recent interview. Her husband agreed, adding dryly: “But it certainly saved us a lot of breath. All we had to do was slur the name a little when we called for the boys and they all came running.”

In terms of the younger Larry’s baseball

career, he was born with some built-in advantages. “We were a really athletic family,” he said during an interview in the Expo dugout at Olympic Stadium. “I remember we were always throwing out boxes full of trophies because there was never any room in the house to keep them all.” Larry Senior, a 54-year-old building supplies dealer, played minor professional ball in Washington state with the old Yakima Bears of the Northwest League. He later coached all four of his boys in Little

League, and he took them along every summer to the Major League Baseball Camp in nearby Oliver, where he served as the school’s hitting instructor. The younger Larry profited from that early training, starring as a shortstop and pitcher in Little League and gradually moving up through juvenile baseball in British Columbia. By the time he was 16, his play at several junior championships gained him the attention of major-league scouts in both the Expos and

Chicago Cubs organizations. At the time, he was not interested. “I was just like every other Canadian kid,” Walker remembers. “I didn’t want to be a baseball player. I wanted to be a hockey player.”

Walker’s dreams of a career as an NHL goalie vanished, however, when he failed to win a spot with the Regina Pats, a major-junior team. Shortly afterwards, Bob Rogers, an Expos scout on the West Coast, called the Walker home. The next day, Larry and his father met Rogers in a hotel near Vancouver airport and, for $5,000, signed a minor-league contract with the Expos organization. It was 1984 and Walker was just 17. He spent the next five years bouncing around minor-league teams in the United States and Mexico, never earning more than $200 a week. Then, on Aug. 16, 1989, he was called up to play his first game for the Expos. It is a day he will never forget. “I went one for one with three walks,” said Walker, adding with a quiet smile,

“Things have looked pretty good

since then.”

Despite his worldly success, Walker’s ties to his home town in the Fraser River valley remain

strong. Two years ago, he married a Maple Ridge girl, Christa Vandenbrink. Earlier this year, the couple bought a house in West Palm Beach, a few minutes’ drive from the Expos Florida spring training facility. He remembers British Columbia with warmth. “I love the place,“ he remarked as he hefted a bat and rose from the dugout at Olympic Stadium. “Like my Dad always says, it’s God’s country.”

BARRY CAME