Neil Walker epitomizes Pittsburgh.
He was born there, went to high school there and was a fixture at Three Rivers Stadium growing up as a huge fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
So it was only fitting that with the 11th overall pick in the first round of the June 2004 MLB draft, the Pirates selected Walker, a catcher out of Pine-Richland High School in Gibsonia, Pa.
From a young age, Walker knew what it would take to play big league baseball, since his father, Tom Walker, pitched in the Major Leagues during a six-year career spanning four teams.
Through dedication and a successful position change from behind the plate to second base, Walker shot through the Pirates’ minor league system and turned in a solid six years for Pittsburgh’s big league club.
He won a Silver Slugger award in 2014 and set a new franchise record for home runs in a single season by a Pirates’ second baseman with 23, surpassing the mark set in 1958 by Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski, who Walker idolized in his youth.
It all just seems like the perfect Cinderella story, right? But that all changed this past December with one phone call.
To account for the impending departure of playoff hero Daniel Murphy, the New York Mets acquired Walker to play second base in exchange for lefty pitcher Jon Niese.
And just like that, the Cinderella story of the hometown Pittsburgh kid had ended.
As a 30-year-old veteran, it was inevitable that the switch-hitting second baseman would fit right in with his new teammates in Flushing. But certainly aiding in that transition has been Walker’s devout Catholic faith.
Though much of his lifestyle has changed with the move to “The Big Apple,” his faith has remained the constant that has allowed him see God’s bigger plan for him.
“My beliefs are my beliefs, and my faith is my faith,” said Walker, a lifetime .270 hitter closing in on 100 career home runs. “It’s a different chapter in my life for me and my wife. We were welcomed here with open arms by a lot of great people…a lot of faith-based people in this clubhouse and organization.”
During his time in Pittsburgh, Walker was instrumental in bringing a Catholic Mass service back to the ballpark after a hiatus for several years. He contacted local area priests to rotate on Saturdays whenever the Pirates were playing home games at PNC Park.
With the game-day commitments of a 162-game schedule, these Masses allowed Pirates’ players, visiting players and ballpark personnel a refreshing break from the daily grind of big league life.
“It (the Mass) just kind of took off,” Walker said. “It probably went from three or four people the first couple of weeks of doing it to 15 or 20 on a weekly basis in the summertime. It was really fun to see. It’s always good to celebrate the Word with faith-based people.”
At Citi Field, Walker has been a regular at the ballpark’s Sunday Mass whenever the Mets are home. With lots of high expectations heading into this season after last year’s run to the World Series, some divine intervention will undoubtedly go a long way.
Walker has realized that baseball could lead to plenty of distractions that stray a man of faith from the right path. But he’s been able to stay grounded through the weekly Masses and being grateful for his ability to play the game at high level.
“You just got to remember you’re playing for the No. 1 … you’re playing for God,” Walker said. “All you can do is prepare yourself and do the things you’re supposed to do.
“God willing, at the end of the day, you play your best whether you win, you lose, you go 0-for-4, you go 4-for-4, whatever the case may be. You just try to play the game the way that you feel that you should to glorify God.”
That’s the type of attitude all 25 Mets will need if the team plans on making another deep postseason run.
And with Walker’s influence – and of course that of God – the Amazins’ are well on their way.
“Through your faith and through your trust in God, you just go out and you play the game and you try to glorify Him,” Walker said. “That’s really all you can do.”
Contact Jim Mancari via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.