A long, gratifying trip:
Phillies’ Neil Walker reaches 10 years the hard way
By Jerry Crasnick
The first two weeks of the Philadelphia Phillies’ season were more notable for rainouts, coronavirus testing and postponement-fueled boredom than actual games. So Neil Walker considered himself fortunate to have a moment worth celebrating -- much less celebrating twice.
Walker has been staying at the regular-season home of Phillies teammate Jay Bruce in New Jersey, where they’re living what he half-jokingly calls the “bachelor life.’’ After a recent Sunday matinee with the Miami Marlins, they drove back to the house, threw some bone-in ribeye steaks on the smoker and opened a bottle of champagne in honor of Walker crossing the 10-year major-league service time threshold.
The celebration turned into a clubhouse bonding moment a week later, when Bruce handed out mini-glasses of champagne and made a toast in Walker’s honor.
“Jay called a quick team meeting and said, ‘I wanted to let you guys know that Neil hit his 10-year mark the other day,’’’ Walker said. “He gave a little speech talking about how awesome and hard it is. There were some cheers and guys came up and congratulated me. That was really special for me.’’
Ten years of MLB service qualify a player for the full pension, which currently amounts to a $230,000 annual payout at age 62. It’s also the minimum requirement for a spot on the Hall of Fame ballot. But the significance of the achievement among players lies primarily in its workmanlike allure: For every Albert Pujols who zips past 10 years on his way to 20, dozens of others arrive without an All-Star appearance, an MVP award or a Hall of Fame portfolio on their resumes.
Of the roughly 20,000 players who’ve appeared in the majors, about 1,200 (or 6 percent) last a decade. And it’s become more of a challenge in recent years, as service time machinations have delayed the accumulation of time at the front end and roster decisions driven by analytics and an emphasis on youth have combined to weed out veterans. This year, because a 162-game season was compressed to 60 games, service time days were prorated and some mental gymnastics were required in the counting process.
For Walker, who turns 35 in September, the 10-year mark is half lifetime achievement award, half survivorship badge.
“I think the story of my career is being adaptive and reliable,’’ he said. “I learned from an early age in this game that you reap what you sow. You get out of it what you put into it. If you put yourself in a box where you say, 'This is who I am, this is what I do,’ and it doesn’t work out, what’s there for you?’’
Walker’s journey is compelling because he’s gone through multiple identities. When the Pirates selected him out of Pine-Richland High School in suburban Pittsburgh with the 11th pick in the 2004 draft, it was a natural feel-good story. He was the hometown kid who attended the 1994 All-Star Game at Three Rivers Stadium and waited in line to snag autographs from Ken Griffey Jr. and Frank Thomas. As a rookie in 2009, Walker took some good-natured grief when the Wall Street Journal reported that he and then-Oakland pitcher Tyson Ross were the only big leaguers still living with their parents.
Walker’s 116 home runs from 2010 to 2016 ranked fourth among MLB second basemen behind Robinson Cano, Ian Kinsler and Brian Dozier, and he won a Silver Slugger Award in 2014. But the numbers obscured the numerous adjustments and character tests along the way. Walker was drafted as a catcher, played third base in the upper minors, then broke into the majors at second base. He hit 23 homers with the New York Mets in 2016, but appeared in only 113 games because of a back injury and had to accept a one-year qualifying offer as free agency arrived.
Since 2017, Walker has suited up for the Mets, Brewers, Yankees, Marlins and Phillies. He signed a minor-league deal with an invitation to Philadelphia’s big-league camp and had to wait until July 19, near the end of “summer camp,’’ for confirmation that he had made the Opening Day roster.
Folks back home were paying attention. Jon Mercurio, the scout who signed Walker in 2004, can recall when Walker was a star multisport athlete in the Pittsburgh suburb of Gibsonia and flirting with the idea of doubling in baseball and football at Penn State or the University of Pittsburgh. He’s followed Walker’s career through every twist, turn and position change.
“I’m proud of the career he’s had,’’ said Mercurio, who’s now with the Phillies. “He’s been such a consistently good player and played on so many winning teams, and he’s been a big reason for it. He’s been a good player and he’s been a pro. He’s handled himself the way you’d want your son to go out and play.’’
Baseball is a family business for the Walkers. Neil’s father, Tom, was a big-league pitcher with the Expos, Tigers, Cardinals and Angels. His uncle, Chip Lang, pitched briefly for Montreal in the mid-‘70s, and older brother Matt played outfield in the Detroit and Baltimore chains. Former Tigers utility man Don Kelly, who married Neil’s sister, Carrie, amassed about seven years of service as a player and continues to accumulate time toward 10 years and his full pension as Derek Shelton’s bench coach in Pittsburgh.
“As a player, that’s the ultimate goal,’’ Kelly said. “When you see the guys who get to 10 years, it’s well-earned. Neil grew up in Pittsburgh, was drafted by Pittsburgh and made his debut in Pittsburgh, but a lot went into those early years in the minor leagues that people maybe don’t know about. He’s worked his butt off every single day of those 10 years.’’
In hindsight, Walker reflects on two crossroads along the way. The first came in 2009, when the Pirates sent him to Bradenton, Fla., to rehab a knee injury. He was in his third season with Triple-A Indianapolis, and during those long, hot, lonely days in the weight room, he wondered what it was going to take to graduate to the majors.
The second moment of reckoning came in 2015, when the Pirates traded him to the Mets. Walker reflects on this interlude as the, “Holy cow, baseball truly is a business’’ phase of his career.
“With lot of guys who get settled in, it’s not the first three, four or five years that are the big deal,’’ he said. “It’s the last few that are tough. The leashes are getting shorter and shorter for guys who are getting closer to 30 or over 30 and not playing what I would consider fairly elite baseball.
“I feel very fortunate that I played when I did. With the landscape now, I’m kind of playing with house money. I know what’s expected of me and I know my role. I have to be prepared to play five different positions, have good at-bats off the bench and get spot starts here and there. Guys either take pride in that or turn up their nose and say, ‘I don’t envision myself as anything but a starter in this league. I’m out.’ For me, it’s never been like that. I love this game. I’ve always loved playing this game since I was a little kid.’’
A day at the park -- even with no fans -- is still something to be cherished. Champagne in August isn’t quite as good as champagne in October. But it still tastes pretty sweet.