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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.

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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.