Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Neil Walker seemed to be a player lost in the system last year. Talent? Walker had it. Ambition? Walker had it. There were few people who doubted Walker could play, it was a string of injuries and consistent production that had made few believe that Walker would ever impact the big league club.
When Walker got as hot as anyone in baseball at the end of 2009 he earned a callup to the Bucs. But the Pirates faithful never got a consistent look at their hometown talent. He spent some time in winter ball and after that experience we caught up to Walker for a chat.
Walker told us that he would never play winter ball again. The look in his eye was one we would never forget. He was a man on a mission. A kid without out a position. Amazingly, at that time Walker had never played second base on the professional level. Let that sink in for a minute when you look back on the season Walker had for the Pirates.
In 2010, Neil Walker backed up his words. In a season that most Pirates fans want to forget, Walker put on a display of talent and desire that nobody could deny. And damn if it wasn’t fun to watch. A player that grew up in Pittsburgh was learning on the job. He was a major league second baseman, and to his credit he didn’t embarass himself with his glove, but he did embarass a few pitchers. Nightly.
Walker never forgot how to crush a baseball.
RumBunter was fortunate to get to spend a couple of days with Walker to learn more about his first season as a Pittsburgh Pirate. We trust you guys won’t hate us, but we are going to break it up in a few parts with a conclusion on Thanksgiving. It will keep you coming back which helps us and since the news cycle is basically rumors for the next few days, the interview should be a nice break (plus we’re traveling most of this week.)
Walker is a straight up guy. We trust that comes across in his answers. He is emotional and passionate about the game of baseball never dodging a question even the tough ones about those who doubt his ability to repeat his rookie performance, the infamous infield fly in Indianapolis, his relationship with Neal Huntington and how he felt after his hometown newspaper called him out as ‘not being a Pittsburgh guy.’
RumBunter: You told us when we spoke last year that this was going to be the year, but still….has it all sunk in yet?
Walker: I think after the season was done it sank in a little more, when you are going through the season the days can start to run together so it’s easy to forget about the last day and only worry about the game at hand. I feel real fortunate to be able to play and perform well this year for the Pirates, but I am looking forward to a better 2011 in all areas.
R: In terms of baseball knowledge, what are the biggest differences in the Neil Walker from November 2009 to Neil Walker today?
Walker: The biggest thing I gained from last year to this year is confidence. When you have success in the minor leagues it’s great from a confidence standpoint, but when you have success at the major league level against the best of the best it makes you feel like the sky is the limit and it keeps you motivated to continue to get better.
R: If you were running the Bucs, where on the diamond do you think Neil Walker would help the 2011 Pirates the most?
Walker: I think I would put myself at second base.
R: It won’t be long until you are back in Bradenton working with Maz, what will you do to become an elite defender at the position?
Walker: To be able to work with Maz is a real treat in Spring Training, he was so talented in terms of his quick hands and feet that anything he can do is a monster help for me. When he speaks about his World Series team and obviously his home run I feel like a little kid all over again. I feel starstruck when I hear him speak because he has done something NO ONE has every done, hit a homer in the seventh game to win it all, that’s every kids dream.
R: You became a rather solid defender at third base in a short amount of time, do you miss the hot corner?
Walker: I do miss third a little bit, I feel fortunate to be able to play it again if need be, but I feel like I’ve found a home at second and I’m really happy there.
R: Will you be able to improve enough to become an elite, star level defender at second?
Walker: I definitely feel capable of being a star player defensively at second. There is still a ton of work to be done to get there though, and I’m committed to get there.
Interview with the Pittsburgh Kid from last season: