Thursday, Oct 23, 2014
Hernando High

First big-leaguer Walker now giving back

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Editor's note: This is the seventh story in a series highlighting Hernando High's 2013 Sports Hall of Fame inductees.

Mike Walker knew what he wanted from the very beginning.

He fell in love with the game of baseball, and as early as his T-Ball days started telling his mom he would one day play in the majors.

That probably isn't unlike many young ballplayers. What made Walker standout: making that dream a reality.

On Sept. 8, 1988, Walker stepped onto the mound at Fenway Park and into Hernando County's history books.

That day the 1984 Hernando High graduate became the county's first Major League Baseball player, pitching in relief for the Cleveland Indians against the Boston Red Sox.

Just over 25 years later, the current parks/facilities and recreation director for the City of Brooksville and president of Hernando Youth Leagues Inc. became one of the newest inductees into the Hernando High Sports Hall of Fame.

"It's a true honor," Walker said. "I bleed Purple and Gold. I've been here since the age of 4, since 1970, and I still support the program.

"It was a little surprising because of the history and length of time Hernando High School has been in the community, and to be inducted in the first four years is definitely an honor and very humbling."

It's hard to argue with Walker's resume. To this day, only Bronson Arroyo has joined Walker as a county grad to reach the big leagues.

He would play professionally for 14 seasons; portions of five in the majors with the Indians, Detroit Tigers and Chicago Cubs, from 1986-99.

But before he reached that point, the 6-foot-1 right-hander spent two years on the varsity level with the Leopards.

Baseball was his only sport, and for that he thanks former Hernando head football coach John Palmer.

Back then, Palmer played for the Leopards under his father, Dub, who recruited the tall and speedy Walker to the football team in the spring of 1983.

One scrimmage Walker attempted to tackle the younger Palmer - and got knocked out. When Walker came to and realized he had only taken a forearm to the head, he quickly left the gridiron behind.

The baseball diamond was where he belonged. He played some outfield, even hit 10 home runs as a senior.

He was a pitcher, though, without a doubt. He idolized Nolan Ryan, ambitiously wanting to break the all-time strikeout leader's record.

"I was blessed with an arm and I was blessed with talent," Walker said. "Just trying to contain it back then was a challenge. I was pretty immature, young and I knew I could throw the ball hard. When you throw the ball 93 miles per hour, you can be effectively wild.

"If I was on, I was on. But I didn't know if occasionally one would fly over someone's head out of the blue. It took some years to learn and mature as a pitcher and put it all together. I think the fear factor was a part of my success in high school."

In two varsity seasons, Walker went a combined 17-7, striking out a school-record 266 batters across 158.1 innings. He's also tied for the single-season school mark in strikeouts with 154.

During that span he earned All-Gulf Coast Athletic Conference honors and was a member of The Tampa Tribune All-Area Team. As a senior, he made the North/South All-Star Game and was voted Florida Athletic Coaches Association District 10 Player of the Year.

The previous summer, he helped Hernando Youth League win a Dixie Majors World Series title, tossing a one-hitter against the defending champs from Alabama en route.

"He was the essential power pitcher," said Ernie Chatman, who coached Walker at the Dixie and high school level. "Every time he went out he had the capability of throwing a no-hitter.

"He was probably one of, if not the best power pitchers we've had in the history of Hernando High School."

The Montreal Expos thought highly enough of Walker to pick him in the 14th round (353rd overall) of the June draft in 1984.

Graduating at age 17, Walker felt he wasn't ready to start a pro career and opted to follow a pipeline Hernando had established at Seminole Community College (now Seminole State College of Florida) in Sanford.

"It was the right step for me at the time, instead of going to a four-year school," said Walker, who had an offer from Florida Southern.

In two seasons at Seminole, he went 3-3 as a freshman, and 8-6 with a 3.50 earned run average as a sophomore tossing a no-hitter in his last regular-season contest, facing 28 batters over nine innings in a 1-0 win over Santa Fe Community College.

Those two years allowed him to slowly transition from his humble upbringing in Lake Lindsey with his mother, who he said "was a big part of my childhood and me getting where I am now."

Twice he was drafted out of Seminole, in the 1985 January Secondary Draft by the Expos (1st round, 15th overall) and the 1986 January Amateur Draft by the Indians (2nd round, 27th overall).

Upon the latter selection, Walker began his professional journey. He split the 1987 season between Single-A Waterloo and Kinston.

"I didn't know what to expect," Walker said. "I was playing with the best of the best worldwide. But most players, whether it's football, baseball, basketball, to be at that level you have a sense of cockiness and that's what gets you through."

He spent most of the 1988 campaign at Double-A Williamsport, going 15-7 with a 3.72 ERA, and made the jump all the way to the majors as a September call-up, at age 21.

"That's when it started to click for me as far as starting it put it together," Walker said. "The club rewarded me with a call up in September. It was very nerve-wracking because a new level can be intimidating."

Walker recalls the Fenway faithful breaking out into the wave during his initial appearance. At that time he didn't realize the historical significance of that moment.

"Now what does it mean?" Walker said. "It means a lot. In the history of Hernando County and all the athletes that have come through here, to be the first to get to that level, I was blessed."

"That was exciting," Chatman said of Walker reaching the majors. "To see somebody work as hard as he did to make it was really special."

Down the stretch in 1988, Walker threw in three games for Cleveland, starting one, going 0-1 with a 7.27 ERA and striking out seven in 8.2 innings.

From that point on, Walker found himself caught in a frustrating pattern. He would have stints on the big-league level in 1990-91 with the Indians, 1995 with the Cubs and 1996 with the Tigers, but never a full season.

Combined over his time in the majors, Walker posted a 3-11 mark and 5.06 ERA with two saves across 88 games, including 12 starts.

He spent parts of 10 seasons in Triple-A, and appeared in a total of 478 minor league games, going 77-72 with a 4.13 ERA.

In 1998, while pitching for the Indianapolis Indians, the Cincinnati Reds' Triple-A affiliate, he set a team and International League record pitching 78 games, mostly as a reliever.

"For 11 years of my career I was one step away, which was challenging and frustrating," Walker said. "I didn't perfect being consistent enough in the strike zone."

The Chicago-born Walker was excited to join his favorite childhood team, the Cubs. On May 21, 1995, he threw two innings out of the bullpen when the Cubs defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers, 2-1 in 13 innings, for the 9,000th win in franchise history.

He was the winning pitcher that day, and his hat was sent to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

That turned out to be his best season in the majors, as he appeared in 42 games going 1-3 with a 3.22 ERA.

Yet the Cubs did not offer him a contract the ensuing offseason and Walker admitted "it starts to play mind games with you. You work hard in the offseason to improve yourself and then for it to not become worth it.

"Having that taste of being in the big leagues, enjoying the game; as an athlete you want to compete. That's what drove me from age 4 to age 33 when I walked away."

Walker felt he could have continued playing another 5-6 years, but by then his kids would be teenagers, and he feared missing their whole childhood.

After returning to the Cleveland organization during the 1999 season spent at Triple-A Buffalo, Walker told his agent to either work out a return to Indianapolis or get him a spot with the Reds.

When that didn't transpire, Walker retired from the game.

"It was the right decision at that time," Walker said. "Had I kept going and going my kids would have never seen me. I don't regret it."

In 1997, he had purchased Kelly's World of Sports, a local sporting goods store, and transformed it into Walker Team Sports.

The business is now Looper Sports Connection after Walker sold it to his former Hernando and HYL teammate, and fellow Hall of Famer, Eddie Looper in 2003.

He spent a year in real estate, then took over his current position with the city in 2004.

"I love my job. I learn something new every day," Walker said. "I love my position here with the City of Brooksville and I hope to be here another 20 years."

Though HYL is typically associated with its Brooksville-based leagues, it also encompasses Spring Hill Dixie baseball and softball, as well as Ridge Manor Dixie baseball, with Walker overseeing them all.

He is in the midst of his second stint as Brooksville baseball director for HYL, and has previously served as the organization's football director.

It's all part of Walker's sense of community, wanting to give back the way others did for him at a young age.

These days he says he lives a very simple life, far removed from that watershed moment at Fenway yet still very much a presence within in his hometown.

"I love the City of Brooksville, the county," Walker said. "I wouldn't want to be anywhere else."

cbernhardt@hernandotoday.com

(352) 544-5288

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