BY TRAVELIN’ JOE PASSOV
This past Sunday, July 26, was scheduled to be induction day at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. for the class of 2020. The Coronavirus chaos squashed those plans. Instead, Derek Jeter, Marvin Miller, Ted Simmons and Diamante’s own Larry Walker will celebrate the honor on this same weekend in 2021.
“I fully understand and agree with the Board’s decision,” said Walker in late April. “It is most important to do the right thing for everybody involved, and that means not putting any participants in jeopardy, whether Hall of Famers or visitors. I realize how serious this situation has become and how many lives have been lost.”
It also means that Walker is spared the agony of having to make a major, televised speech for another 12 months. Sure, he’s ecstatic about the honor. On the other hand, he’s less comfortable about the spotlight that comes with it. Larry Walker is as humble as they come. His baseball career earned him his deserved place in the Hall of Fame. Still, it’s not easy honoring a legend who never had any interest in ceremony, recognition or self-promotion. Perhaps that makes it even more special.
A Diamante visitor for two-and-a-half years and a property owner for a little more than a year, native Canadian Larry Walker might be reluctant to toot his own horn, so we’ll do it for him. He played 17 years in the major leagues, from 1989 to 2005, with the Montreal Expos, Colorado Rockies and St. Louis Cardinals. As a Colorado Rockie in 1997, he became the only player in major league history to register both a .700 slugging percentage (SLG) and 30 stolen bases in the same season. That season he won the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award (MVP). From 1997-1999, he became the first player in more than 60 years to hit better than .360 in three consecutive years. He captured three National League batting championships overall. He was elected to Canada’s Sports of Hall of Fame in 2007. Seven Gold Gloves. Five All-Star appearances. Three Silver Sluggers.
Pretty impressive stuff, right? Tell that to the guy who answered the Hall of Fame’s congratulatory call and accompanying video camera crew while dressed in a NASCAR-style, SpongeBob SquarePants shirt. Sports Illustrated called him a “fashion tastemaker,” because the shirt sold out on Amazon and at Walmart within 24 hours.
Self-effacing? When I asked him about his most memorable moment on the field, he didn’t respond with “clinching the National League pennant,” or “hitting a home run in the World Series.” Instead, he recalled a gaffe. In 1994, while playing for the Expos on an ESPN Sunday night telecast in Dodgers Stadium, he caught a fly ball in foul territory from L.A.’s Mike Piazza off a Pedro Martinez pitch. He then handed the ball over to six-year-old fan Sebastian Napier. Unfortunately, that was only the second out in the inning. Larry quickly saw the Dodgers’ Jose Offerman tagging up from first, running at full throttle. Walker sheepishly retrieved the ball from the young fan, and held Offerman to third base. Larry’s make-good to young Sebastian the next inning earned both a standing ovation.
“I fired a strike to home plate, too,” says Walker. “You know, I had a few great defensive plays and some walk-off home runs. But that play gets talked about more than anything else in my career. Everyone seems to remember it.”
Diamante’s Ken Jowdy chimes in, laughing and commenting, “I remember my happiest moment when you were on the field, Larry. The 2004 World Series.”
That was the year the Red Sox broke an 86-year World Series drought. For Jowdy, a rabid Red Sox fan, it was heaven. “I don’t want to hear about it,” responds Walker, who for his part, batted .357 in that World Series, playing for the St. Louis Cardinals and who hit the only two home runs the Cardinals managed the entire series.
On the afternoon of January 21, 2020, Larry was out doing yard work at his Florida home. “That day was fairly normal for me,” he says. “I had my best friend in from L.A. and one of my brothers came down from Virginia. I brought them in as a ‘just in case’ the phone happened to ring. It was leading up to the witching hour—5 pm to 5:20 is when they said they’d call, if they called, as that was one hour before it would be (announced) on TV.
“I made myself a drink, turned the ringer on and set the phone down, so everybody could see if the call came in. It was a little chilly for a Florida evening and it was getting close to end of the time they said they’d be calling. I made an announcement to the friends and family there, ‘In 90 seconds, we’re going inside.’ Thirty-three seconds later, the phone rang. Everyone around me went crazy. I went numb. The emotions took over. It brought tears to my eyes.”
On the 10th and final year of eligibility, by a margin of six votes, Larry Walker was now a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. For a Vancouver, B.C. kid whose first love and sporting success was hockey, who had zero ambitions or expectations of realizing this pinnacle of success, it was truly sweet. He had deliberately kept expectations low.
“The thought of being a Hall-of-Famer never once crossed my mind while I was playing,” says Walker. “When my playing days were over, my goal was to stay on the ballot for all ten years. For me, that was a success. I never put myself in a position for disappointment.”
This modest superstar fits right in at Diamante, where’s he treated simply as another member out hunting for birdies. Actually, Larry has a hobby that finds him out hunting for golf balls, a ball hawk, if you will.
“As a kid in Canada,” Larry remembers, “I would wade into the water ponds looking for balls. I would fill egg cartons with them and price them not according to the brand, but as to how shiny they were.”
During the pandemic, Larry has picked up right where he left off. He has spent the duration at Diamante. He’s lowered his handicap index from 9.7 to 4.1, partly because he says he says he’s played more golf in the past four months than in the previous 15 years. Still, he’s far more proud of his found golf ball total.
“I’m up to 3,500,” he says. “My record for one day is 381 and I had another day when I found 351. It started one day during the shutdown. Number 11 on the Dunes is in my backyard and some of the staff was cutting back some brush, but they left the golf balls there. I went and picked them up. It was like an Easter Egg hunt.”
Larry played an all-star lineup of courses in Ireland on a buddies trip in 2019, with Old Head, a cliff-top course above the Atlantic Ocean a clear favorite. Nevertheless, he also enjoys both the Dunes and El Cardonal courses at Diamante.
“El Cardonal is far tougher for me,” says Walker. “The Dunes offers more forgiveness for my erratic shots.” The par-4 fourth and the par-5 18th on the Dunes are two of Larry’s top choices for golf holes at Diamante, as he makes par or birdie nearly every time. The hole that eats his lunch? The par-3 16th on El Cardonal. “I know, it’s only 150 yards, but I just don’t seem to club right. There’s wind up there that I never believe or see.”
No matter what he scores, Larry tips his cap to the entire Diamante experience. “Right now, we’re playing the Dunes and it’s quite similar to the courses I enjoyed in Ireland,” he says. “The staff is down-to-earth and polite, there are comfort stations every four holes and the sushi at the Sports Bar is phenomenal—always fresh and good.
“Everyone here has done an amazing job (during the pandemic) of keeping everything running and following the rules. We felt very safe in here since we arrived in March. Another nice thing: Ken lets homeowners look for golf balls.”