Column: Walker’s route to Hall included trip up I-25

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There was a time, many years ago, when I was on a Sunday morning radio show in Billings with Andy Price, a talented sports caster at one of the local TV stations.

“Sports Rap,” we (he) called it, and I’d kind of forgotten about it until Tuesday, when Larry Walker was elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame.

I talked to that guy in 1997, during what the Colorado Rockies called its “Goodwill Caravan” that swept up I-25 and into Billings every January for a while.

I know it was 1997 because I went to Newspapers.com and searched my name along with Walker’s. One of many the things that came up was the “Sports Rap,” in which Price carried this dead weight.

On one of those shows he might have chided Walker because the right fielder had blown off Price in 1995, when he and a cameraman did their own goodwill caravan to Denver.

“So just because you’re from Billings, Montana, I have to talk to you?” is what Walker, newly-signed away from the Expos, asked. Or words to that effect.

Mike Kingery, on the other hand, was very accommodating and so Price became a Kingery “stan,” drawing the obvious connection that without their light-hitting center fielder the Rockies weren’t postseason-ready (Kingery played 119 games for the Rockies’ first playoff team in ’95, then left).

I stuck with Walker, who could do it all before he arrived in Colorado. Canada-born, he hit, hit with power, ran the bases perfectly and had a cannon in right for Montreal.

In those days of disposable income I would drive to Denver just to watch two days of baseball. You could pull off the freeway into a $10 parking lot and buy a lower-bowl ticket for not much more.

The “Blake Street Bombers” were formidable: Andres Galarraga, Dante Bichette, Vinny Castilla, Walker. In 1996 I saw the Rockies knock around Atlanta Braves aces Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux. Then, as I drove back to Montana, I “watched” John Smoltz throw eight shutout innings on the radio.

“Well, these were the Braves – one of those guys was going to stick it to us,” Walker said. Or words to that effect.

This is 1997 again and Walker pretty much has to talk to us, since he’s in Billings with the Goodwill Caravan. He is laughing, mentioning how after playing just 83 games in 1996 he’d just like to stay healthy. He’d snapped a collarbone chasing a fly ball.

“You have to be half an idiot to run into a wall, anyway,” Walker said. Clint Hurdle, then the Rockies’ hitting coach, confirmed that yes, Walker was half an idiot.

And so it went. The caravan loaded up and carried Walker back for a 1997 season in which he was the National League’s Most Valuable Player: 49 homers, 130 runs knocked in, 46 doubles, 143 runs scored, a .366 average, 33 steals, 14 outfield assists.

A ridiculous season by any measure. I kept going back to Denver to watch some fireworks, not all of them off the bat. A runner would try to tag and score on a deep fly to right, and get thrown out – a mighty toss, one few players can make.

It was the final out of the half-inning, so after the Rockies batted Walker drew an ovation as he ran back out to right. He smiled, clutching his right shoulder and rotating his arm, telling the crowd, “That hurt.” Or words to that effect.

Fritz Neighbor can be reached at 406-758-4463 or at fneighbor@dailyinterlake.com. You can follow him @Fritz_Neighbor on Twitter.

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