Even at the end of his baseball career, former Pittsburgh Pirates infielder and three-sport star at Pine-Richland High School Neil Walker was still keeping tabs on his former teammates. Philadelphia — the last team Walker played on in the majors — were playing San Francisco on a Wednesday afternoon and Walker’s old friend from their time together on the Pirates, Andrew McCutchen, was up to bat.
“I always imagined in my own brain that after I was done playing, I’d have a hard time watching baseball,” Walker said. “But as I say that, I’m watching Andrew’s first at bat against the San Francisco Giants, so excuse me if I’m a little distracted.”
With his 2014 Silver Slugger award visible just over his left shoulder, Walker’s eyes darted between the Giants-Phillies game playing on a screen out of view and a Zoom meeting of reporters asking him about his recently-revealed retirement.
Walker had announced the day before that he was hanging his cleats after 12 years of playing Major League Baseball, a decision that had floated in the back of his mind for years.
After nearly two decades in professional baseball, Walker began to see the game change faster than he could keep up. The final straw came last year, when the National League announced that it would adopt the designated hitter rule. While the rule change lasted only a year, it signaled to Walker that his days playing at the highest level were numbered and that he should start thinking about exiting on his own terms.
He appeared in just 18 games in 2020, batting .231 without a home run. After he was designated for assignment by Philadelphia in Sept. 2020, Walker said he knew he should be ready to call it quits. He stayed in baseball shape through the spring, ready in case there was remaining interest from MLB clubs, but that interest never came.
“The piece that was really an ‘uh-oh’ for me was this last season when I signed with the Phillies, I knew that, offensively, they had seven or eight guys that played everyday,” Walker said. “But as a National League team, there was a really good opportunity for me to stay involved. When they went to a DH rule, I knew my role certainly dwindled a little bit.”
While acknowledging that it was difficult to move on, Walker said that he will walk away from his time as a player with “no regrets”.
Walker’s had a lot of success over his long baseball career. His high school number 24 is retired by his alma mater, he was drafted in the first round, earned his spot one of baseball’s best rookies in 2010 and became a cornerstone of his childhood favorite team’s most successful three-year runs since the 1990’s.
To Walker, this career wasn’t just something he wanted. Growing up, he always felt that playing professional baseball was already in his future. He felt destined to play in the Major Leagues.
“I think that when I was younger and coming up … it was ingrained in me pretty early that I wanted to try and be a baseball player,” Walker said. “And of course a lot of kids say ‘Oh I want to be a big-leaguer, I want to be in the NFL.’ But, truly in my mind, there was no other option. I wanted to be a professional baseball player. I wanted to do everything I could to make that happen.”
And not only did Walker realize that destiny, but he gained a wealth of experience in the process. He’s played on 100-win teams and 100-loss teams, in big markets and small markets, been a starter and a reserve and platooned at multiple defensive positions.
He wants to stay around the game and impart that wisdom onto the next generation of players.
“My perspective on baseball has been very vast,” Walker said. “So I feel that it’s very important for me to do what I can to give back what I can.”
Walker says he will take some time off over the summer to be with family and catch up on hobbies he never had time for when he was a big-leaguer. But even with his playing days over, Walker won’t completely walk away from the game he loves. Walker said he’s already had “very general conversations” with the Pirates organization about returning to the club in some capacity, but he is still in the early stages of that process.
A break will come first. He said he watched the Pirates 2021 home opener from the stands with his daughter and reveled in the opportunity to enjoy the game as a spectator.
“I actually took my daughter to Opening Day and she’s only four, but I stuffed her full of cotton candy and peanuts and hot dogs and all that,” Walker said. “But I remember sitting there and thinking ‘this is really cool’ and something that makes me flash back to senior year of high school when I was going to baseball games.”
After accomplishing all he has and realizing the goal he chased since childhood, Walker has nothing but warm feelings towards his time in the big leagues.
“As I sit here, looking back, I’m very grateful,” Walker said. “I got to live my dream.”