By SCOTT FERRELL, Written for the LSWA
One swing took Todd Walker from a good high school baseball player to a great one.
One swing sent Walker on a journey that carried him from Bossier City’s Airline High School to LSU and eventually the major leagues.
One swing set in motion a career that was officially bookmarked among the greatest in state history with his 2011 enshrinement in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.
That one swing came early in Walker’s high school baseball career. As a sophomore at Bossier City’s Airline High School, Walker was the Vikings’ leadoff hitter on a team that reached the 1989 Class 4A state tournament at Alex Box Stadium in Baton Rouge.
In his first at-bat in the stadium he would later call his collegiate home, Walker turned on a pitch and sent it over the right-field wall for a home run, setting the tone for a game Airline would win on its way to reaching the state championship game.
“It was one of the biggest, if not the biggest, home runs of my life,’’ Walker recalls. “Because it was the first significant home run, especially being a sophomore in high school. I’m not sure if it gave me confidence but I definitely remember it distinctly. I remember it being a high and inside pitch and there was nowhere to go with it but to right field.’’
Walker’s Vikings lost the 1989 state championship game. The next year, he was named Shreveport-Bossier City’s Player of the Year and he led his team back to the state tournament. The Vikings lost in the quarterfinals in 1990.
As a senior he was named the state’s Most Outstanding Player and led an Airline team that didn’t suffer its first loss until the state title game.
A prep career that started well had blossomed after the home run at Alex Box Stadium.
“That had to have boosted his confidence,’’ says former Airline coach Clay Bohanan says. “He realized that he could he play in the big arena, even moreso than what he was already playing in. Maybe that was just a sign that there were great things to come for him.’’
Just a few weeks after finishing his high school career, Walker was selected by the Texas Rangers in the 51st round of the 1991 First-Year Player Draft. His selection round was affected by a couple of issues. He had rotator cuff surgery earlier in his senior year and a scholarship offer to play at LSU.
Walker, though, passed on the opportunity to sign a professional contract after high school in a move he calls the “greatest decision I ever made.’’
“There were so many reasons to sign and reasons not to,’’ Walker recalls. “One of the main reasons not to (sign) was to let my shoulder heal a little bit. I felt like in college, not playing six, seven days a week would help me.
“And getting the opportunity to play at LSU was better than any minor league deal I could find. I jumped at that.’’
Walker arrived at LSU when the Tigers were coming off their first baseball national championship. He was also arriving at a time when there were a couple of players – Keyann Cook and Mike Neal — ahead of him at second base.
“Now we’re all stacked up at second base and I’m the third-string guy. That was another reason people told me to sign (with the Rangers),’’ Walker recalls. “They (LSU) were one of the top programs and they had some younger guys. A lot of people told me I’d get buried down there. It was a big risk for me. But it was where I wanted to go to school. I remember thinking if the baseball thing doesn’t work out, I’m where I want to be.’’
The baseball thing worked out, all right.
During fall practice, Walker hit. And hit. And hit until LSU coach Skip Bertman called him into his office at the end of fall practice.
“By the end of the fall,’’ Bertman recalls, “I called him into the office as I did all the players. I said, ’Listen, you’re our starting second baseman from start to finish’ as a freshman.’’
“For him to tell me that I was going to be the starting second baseman, it was like that scene from ‘Major League’ when Willie Mays Hayes makes the team and he tries to play it cool and he goes outside and screams, that’s kind of how it was for me,’’ Walker says.
If the home run at Alex Box ignited Walker’s high school career, then the meeting with Bertman during the fall of 1991 set Walker up for one of the historic careers in college baseball.
“Once Skip told me that, I’ve never been more motivated to do anything in my life,’’ Walker says. “I wanted badly to play well. That requires a lot of sacrifice, but I wanted it bad enough that I didn’t care. I didn’t care about going to the beaches in the summer or going out with friends at night. Instead, I was hitting baseballs until four in the morning and that’s what I loved to do. It wasn’t that I felt like I had to do that to get to the big leagues. I was just in the moment and wanting to be the best at that time.’’
As a freshman, he did something no one had ever done at LSU – hit .400 for a full season. While the Tigers didn’t return to the College World Series in 1992, Walker earned several individual accolades. He was named national Freshman of the Year by both Baseball America and Collegiate Baseball and he was a consensus second-team All-American.
He didn’t hit .400 as a sophomore but he did something better – he helped the Tigers win a second national championship. In his first trip to Omaha, Neb., for the College World Series he was named the Most Outstanding Player of the CWS, capping a season that also included an SEC-record 33-game hitting streak.
Walker hit a grand slam against Texas A&M. He had a game-winning single against Long Beach State to send the Tigers to the national championship game. In the title game, he hit an early home run to help LSU win, 8-0 against Wichita State. He hit .350 with three home runs and 12 RBIs in the CWS, paving the way for him to later be named to the all-time CWS team.
The national championship provided some solace for the near-misses in high school. But it also provided more evidence that Walker was a clutch hitter.
He left LSU after his junior season as a first-round draft pick of the Minnesota Twins. Although he played parts of 12 seasons with seven teams, it was the fall of 2003 with the Boston Red Sox that allowed Walker to thrive on the big stage again.
In that 2003 postseason, Walker hit a Red Sox franchise record five home runs. He hit .313 in the American League Division Series against Oakland and .370 in the American League Championship Series against the New York Yankees. Only an Aaron Boone home run in Game 7, kept Walker off baseball’s biggest stage – the World Series.
“My good friend Doug Mientkiewicz had been in the playoffs the year before and we talked about that,’’ says Walker. “He said, ‘You can tap into something in the playoffs that you can’t tap into in the regular season. I don’t know what it is but you can just focus better.’
“It takes you two different ways. It makes you better or way worse. When we started the playoffs in 2003 I was hitting between Nomar and Manny. It was Johnny Damon, Nomar Garciaparra, Todd Walker and Manny Ramirez. That was a lot of pressure. I was just able to focus better than I ever have in my life. I couldn’t repeat it the next season in the regular season. It’s just something you draw power from.’’
Walker’s baseball career came to a close in 2007. It was a career, though, that included selection to College Baseball’s Hall of Fame and the LSU Hall of Fame. It was a career that included 1,316 hits in the big leagues and a .289 career batting average. It was a career that took off after that one swing in high school and has him in the state’s sports Hall of Fame.
“Growing up, if you had told me I would be in the College Baseball Hall of Fame, the LSU Hall of Fame and the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, I not only would have told you that you were crazy, I never would have thought about it again,’’ Walker says. “For it to be a reality now, I look at the people I’m surrounded by and I’m just in awe and I’m very blessed.’’
(Story originally published in June 2011)
Photo courtesy of LSU Athletics