Neil Martin Andrew Walker (born September 10, 1985) is an American professional baseball second baseman who is currently a free agent. He was drafted by his hometown Pittsburgh Pirates in the first round of the 2004 Major League Baseball draft , and made his Major League Baseball (MLB) debut with them in 2009. He played with the Pirates through 2015 and played for the New York Mets in 2016 and 2017 and the Milwaukee Brewers in 2017.

Early life

Walker, the son of former major league pitcher Tom Walker (1972–77), [12] was born in Pittsburgh , Pennsylvania , he grew up outside of Pittsburgh in the nearby North Hills suburbs and attended Pine-Richland High School . He graduated in 2004. He played catcher on the baseball team and a wide receiver for the football team. Walker, who also played on the Rams' basketball team until his senior year, was a two-time Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Male Athlete of the Year. [13] His baseball jersey, #24, was retired from Pine-Richland during a pre-game ceremony before the Pittsburgh Pirates' July 22, 2010 game. [14]

Neil grew up as a fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and attended many of the team's games while sitting in the " Peanut Heaven " section of Three Rivers Stadium . In 1994, he attended the All-Star Game , where he obtained the signatures of Ken Griffey, Jr. and Frank Thomas . To this day, those signed baseballs are among his most prized baseball possessions. Prior to being drafted by the Pirates, Walker approached the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State about doubling in baseball and football ; however, he passed on those options out of concern that Penn State wanted him to add 60 pounds and become a tight end .

Professional baseball career

Minor leagues

The Pittsburgh Pirates selected Walker in the first round of the 2004 Major League Baseball draft . After three minor league seasons, Neil started 2007 rated No. 74 on Baseball America 's list of Top 100 prospects, and No. 3 in the Pirates' organization behind Andrew McCutchen and Brad Lincoln . [15]

Walker was invited to the Pirates' 2007 spring training as a non-roster invitee, where he was converted from his drafted position of catcher to third base . He was sent back to the Pirates Double-A affiliate Altoona Curve where he spent the majority of the season. On May 15, 2007, he became the first Curve player to have a four-hit game, going 4-for-4 with a home run, double and two RBI against the Portland Sea Dogs . [16] Walker hit a pair of two-run home runs on May 27, 2007, helping the Curve end a 10-game losing streak against the Bowie Baysox . [17] He hit a grand slam and drove in five runs on June 28, 2007 in the second game of a double-header against the Trenton Thunder . [18]

Walker was promoted to the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians for the 2008 season, where he played 133 games, compiling a .242 average with 16 home runs, 80 RBI and 10 stolen bases. [19]

Pittsburgh Pirates

2009

Walker spent the majority of the season again with the Pirates Triple-A affiliate Indianapolis Indians . In 95 games, he hit .264 with 69 RBI and 5 stolen bases. He received his first Major League call-up on September 1, 2009 and served as a pinch-hitter for Pirates starter Charlie Morton that night against the Cincinnati Reds . His first career hit came five days later against Jason Motte of the St. Louis Cardinals , a single to right field. He never became an every day regular player and finished the season hitting .194 in 17 games.

2010

Walker spent most of spring training with the Pirates in Bradenton, Florida before being reassigned back to the Indians. He hit .321 with six home runs, 26 RBI and 10 stolen bases in 43 games with Indianapolis and on May 25, 2010, he was called back up to the Pirates when first baseman Steve Pearce was placed on the disabled list with a sprained ankle. [20]

He made his first Major League start of the year that night against the Cincinnati Reds, playing at third base . He hit an RBI double in the 8th inning off Reds starter Mike Leake . But his role on the team was initially in question, as Andy LaRoche had been the Pirates every day third baseman. With high-priced trade acquisition Akinori Iwamura struggling, Pirates manager John Russell decided to give Walker a try at second base – a position where he had only played 23 career games at any level. [21]

But the position change stuck and Walker quickly established himself as the new second baseman. He hit his first Major League home run on June 1, 2010 off Chicago Cubs starter Ted Lilly , a two-run shot that propelled the Pirates to a 3–2 victory. "This goes back to being 5 or 6 years old at Three Rivers Stadium , sitting in peanut heaven", Walker said after the game. "Getting drafted by the Pirates, this is just a Cinderella story. It's incredible." [22]

Walker missed hitting for the cycle by only a triple on June 25, 2010 against the Oakland Athletics . He doubled and scored a run in the first inning, singled in the third and then hit his 3rd home run off Athletics starter Ben Sheets . However, he was forced to leave the game after being nearly knocked unconscious by teammate Ryan Church 's knee when the two accidentally collided going for a fly ball. [23] He then missed the following seven games with concussion-like symptoms before returning to action on July 3.

Walker scored a career-high three times in a 12–6 win over the Houston Astros on July 17, 2010. He hit 3rd in the Pirates batting order, going 3-for-5 with 3 runs and 2 RBI. He set another career high three days later, recording five hits in one game against the Milwaukee Brewers , finishing the night 5-for-5 with a run scored and an RBI. Walker became the first Pirate rookie since fellow Pittsburgh native John Wehner in 1991 to have a five-hit game. [24] His hitting tear was finally ended on July 23, 2010 against the San Diego Padres , after recording six straight multi-hit games. He was batting .593 in that time (16-for-27) with four runs scored and eight RBIs.

Walker kicked off August with three hits while driving in a career-high four runs in a 7–6 win over the Cincinnati Reds on August 3, 2010. [25] Walker played a pivotal role in a series win over the St. Louis Cardinals , driving in three runs against Cy Young hopeful Adam Wainwright on August 24 and then repeating the feat the very next day against Jake Westbrook . [26] Following his performances against St. Louis, Walker then went on an 18-game hitting streak, from August 23 through September 12. The streak was the longest by any Pirate hitter in 2010 and the longest by any Pirate rookie since Rennie Stennett also recorded an 18-game streak in 1971. [27]

Walker finished the 2010 season batting .296 with 12 home runs and 66 RBIs. His 54 RBIs after the All-Star Break tied with Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols for the 3rd best mark in the National League.

He was named the second baseman on Baseball America' s 2010 All-Rookie Team. [28] He was also named the second baseman on the 2010 Topps Major League Rookie All-Star Team . [13]

2011

After playing nearly every position on the diamond from catcher to the outfield, Walker finally settled in as a Major League second-baseman.

New Pirates manager Clint Hurdle was also full of praise for Walker, who reported early to training camp with the pitchers and catchers, saying "He was really thrown into the fire last season, having to learn the position at the major league level, which is challenging and very difficult, but, to his credit, he pulled it off." [27]

Walker hit his first career Major League grand slam on opening day, April 1, 2011 in the 5th inning off Chicago Cubs starter Ryan Dempster , joining Roberto Clemente as the only Pirates players to hit a grand slam on opening day. [13] On May 20, Walker's bobblehead night at PNC Park, he drove in a career-high 5 RBIs against the Detroit Tigers in a 10–1 Pirate win. [13]

2012

After dealing with various back issues in August and September, Walker was shut down for the season on September 29 with a herniated disc in his back. [13]

2013

Walker was activated from the disabled list on May 13 after spending some time with the Altoona Curve. [13]

2014

Walker was placed on the disabled list June 9 after undergoing an emergency Appendectomy thus allowing a roster spot for top prospect Gregory Polanco . [13] On September 14, Walker hit his 20th home run of the season (a new career high) also setting a new record for home runs in a season by Pirates second-basemen, a record which was previously held by Bill Mazeroski . [13]

2015

On May 9, 2015, during a 7–5 win over the Cardinals, the Pirates became the first MLB team to turn a 4–5–4 triple play . The play occurred when the Cardinals' Yadier Molina lined out to Walker. Walker threw to Jung-ho Kang at third base to double off Jhonny Peralta for the second out. Kang then threw the ball back to Walker, who was standing on second base, for the final out after Jason Heyward froze between second and third. [13]

New York Mets

On December 9, 2015, the Pirates traded Walker to the New York Mets for Jon Niese . [13] On January 29, 2016, Walker signed a one-year, $10.55 million deal avoiding arbitration. [13]

2016

On April 23, 2016, Walker hit his 100th career home run in a game against the Atlanta Braves . [14] On April 27, Walker hit his 9th home run of April, tying a Mets franchise monthly record. [14] On September 9, Walker underwent a lumbar microdiscectomy at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, ending his season. Despite appearing in only 113 games, Walker tied a career high with 23 home runs and finished with a .282 batting average. [14] After the season, Walker became a free agent for the first time in his career.

2017

On November 14, 2016, Walker signed a qualifying offer from the Mets for one year worth $17.2 million. [14] On June 14, Walker suffered a partial tear in his left hamstring and was placed on the disabled list the following day. [14] On July 28, Walker was activated from the disabled list. [14] On August 8 at Citi Field , Walker made his first career Major League start at first base . [14]

Milwaukee Brewers

On August 12, 2017, Walker was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers for a player to be named later . [14]

Personal life

Aside from his father, many other baseball players are related to Neil. His uncle, Chip Lang is a former Montreal Expos pitcher. Walker is also the brother-in-law of Don Kelly , a fellow Major League Baseball player, who is married to his sister Carrie, a former professional basketball player. Neil's brother, Matt, played outfield for George Washington University and in the minor leagues in the Detroit Tigers and Baltimore Orioles systems. His other brother, Sean, pitched for George Mason University . [47]

Walker attended high school with his future wife, Niki, who was one year ahead of him. They did not date, however, until a few years after Walker began his professional baseball career. [48] They were married on December 3, 2011 in Wexford, Pennsylvania . The couple's first child, a daughter named Nora, was born on August 23, 2016.

Walker was one of only two Major League players during the 2010 season to still live with his parents. The other was pitcher Tyson Ross . "He's really not thrilled about that. We try to give him his space," said his mother Carolyn, although Walker himself said he loves life at home. However, Walker announced at Pirate Camp prior to the 2011 season that his mom finally kicked him out of their North Hills area home. [27]

Walker idolized Bill Mazeroski as a youth and received instruction from the great Pirates second-baseman during spring training, which provided invaluable help when Walker was called upon to play the position after Akinori Iwamura 's struggle. [49] He was also a fan of Pirates' outfielder Andy Van Slyke , whom he watched play at Three Rivers Stadium. [47]

Walker is a Roman Catholic . [50] He led the effort to provide weekly Mass to fellow Catholics on the Pirates as well as Catholics from the visiting team. Walker states that Mass services are an important part of his life because they "combat the negative qualities" found in living the lifestyle of a Major League Baseball player. [50] He also was a guest on Blessed2Play, a national radio show hosted by Ron Meyer where Neil discussed his faith and career.

Walker's father, a former teammate of Roberto Clemente , reflected about his son's career when discussing Clemente's death in 1972. Before taking off on the flight that he would die on, Clemente insisted that Walker's father not join him on his humanitarian mission. Walker's father said Clemente saved his life and allowed him to have his family, including Neil Walker.

See also