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Glimmer of Hope for Former Star : Once a Chicago Cub Standout, Jerome Walton Hopes Simply to Catch On With the Angels

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jerome Walton’s eyes smoldered with resentment. Memories that he so badly wanted to forget were assaulting his soul.

What was he doing in a California Angel uniform, wearing No. 59 as if he were some pimple-faced kid from the minors? What was he doing in camp as a nonroster player, as if he were a journeyman trying to grab one last season for the pension plan? What was he doing trying to beat out two rookies simply for a job on the team, and having no chance to make the starting lineup?

It’s crazy, he tells himself. He was the National League rookie of the year in 1989. He had a 30-game hitting streak that season, the longest of any Chicago Cub player in modern-day history.

“I thought I was going to be their center fielder for the next 20 years,” Walton says. “I thought I’d own Chicago, you know, me and Michael. I figured it was just the beginning.”

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Now, he’s nothing more than a nonroster invitee to the Angels’ spring-training camp, vying for a job as the fifth outfielder, while trying to shed his past.

Jerome O’Terell Walton, considered one of the brightest prospects in baseball, is struggling to stay in the big leagues.

For that, the Walton family says, you can blame the Cubs.

“Good God Almighty, the Cubs tried to break that man,” said his uncle, Willie George Walton. “They had him so psyched out, he couldn’t even play ball anymore.

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“I watched him on TV one day last year, and I said, ‘Look at you, you don’t even look like the same ballplayer anymore.’ He told me, ‘Unc, they got me so down, I don’t know what I’m doing.’ I couldn’t believe what they did to him.

“I couldn’t even stand to watch any more games. When they came on TV, I left the house and wouldn’t come back until the game was over. The things they were saying about him. . . .

“It was like they were trying to take his manhood away from him.”

Walton, who is shy by nature anyway, became a recluse. He arrived only when he was required to be at the ballpark each day. He’d leave as soon as the game ended, go home, pick up the phone, and tell his uncle and mom about his troubles.

“I could never get any sleep,” Walton said. “I’d stay up all night, watch TV, toss and turn for two to three hours, and then go to the park. I didn’t even leave the apartment unless I had to.

“I came to the park so tired that I thought I was going to collapse. I just had too much on my mind to ever sleep.

“Man, how can you sleep when you know your own team is trying to ruin your career?”

The Cubs, who three years earlier promoted and marketed Walton as if he’d be as much a fixture at Wrigley Field as the outfield ivy, had relegated him to the bench and labeled him a malcontent.

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“I got to the point where I just wanted to quit, go home, and start a new life,” Walton said. “The Cubs stole my pride, and really, I had nothing left.

“When you’re so mentally messed up like I was, you get people worried that you’ll go and do something crazy.

“It was that bad.”

Walton had never spent a day in triple A when Manager Don Zimmer announced in 1989 that a 23-year-old kid from Newnan, Ga., would be the Cubs’ opening-day center fielder.

He had all of the makings to be the Rickey Henderson of the National League, Zimmer remembers. Maybe he didn’t have quite the speed or power, but certainly he had everything else. He’d be perfect as their leadoff hitter.

When the season ended, Zimmer had a center fielder that was a near-unanimous choice for rookie of the year, and the runner-up, Dwight Smith, in left field. If not for Walton, the Cubs never would have been able to win the Eastern Division championship and reach postseason for only the second time since 1945.

Walton, only the third player in Cub history to win the rookie-of-the-year award, batted .293 with 64 runs and 24 stolen bases. He seemed undaunted by pressure. He batted .364 in the playoffs and then spent his winter roaming the country as if he were on tour. Everyone wanted a piece of Walton, and he seemed to be home only long enough for his junior college to stage Jerome Walton Day.

The Cubs started to sense in the midst of the winter that there could be problems ahead. There was the complaint filed by his ex-wife that he beat and threatened to kill her. There were the friends and relatives who badgered Walton for financial help. And there were hints that Walton expected a much bigger contract than they planned to offer.

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When Walton arrived at spring training out of shape, and demanded to be paid as if he were a star, the Cubs refused. They never could reach a contractual agreement, and the Cubs renewed his contract for $185,000.

“He became aloof when he didn’t get the money he wanted,” said Hugh Alexander, special player consultant for the Cubs. “He just never performed again like he did in ’89. It was like he played with something on his mind.”

Walton was so distraught over his contract that he nearly packed his bags and left the country, vowing never to play for the Cubs again.

“He was very close to leaving and going to Japan,” Willie George Walton said. “He was talking pretty seriously about going to Japan, and asked me what he should do.

“I told him to stay, that things would get better. And I really believed that.

“I’ve never been so wrong in my life.”

Walton never had the opportunity in 1990 to duplicate his rookie season. He suffered a broken left hand June 17, when he was hit by a pitch, and after being sidelined for six weeks, he was hit again 10 days later. He wound up playing only 101 games, batting .263 with 63 runs and 14 stolen bases.

His contract was renewed again the following winter, this time for $210,000. It would also be the season he would lose his starting job. He batted .219 with seven stolen bases.

“It was like they blamed me for the reason they were losing,” Walton said, “that’s why I was benched. They had me so messed up mentally, I didn’t know what I was doing.”

Said Susan Hudson, Walton’s mother: “It was like they had my son on trial all year, that’s how bad it was.”

Despite Walton’s plunging status, the Cubs constantly were inundated with trade offers, but kept resisting the temptation. They still believed the talent was there, and were damned if they were going to allow him to come back and haunt them.

The Cubs’ game plan was to appease Walton early. They provided him with a $525,000 salary, and told him that he was their starting center fielder again. Their promise lasted until March 30, the day Cub General Manager Larry Himes traded George Bell across town to the White Sox for center fielder Sammy Sosa and pitcher Ken Patterson.

Said Dwight Smith: “Jerome got so down on himself after that, he never again was the same. He thought the organization was against him, his teammates were against him, and everyone was against him.

“His confidence was shot.”

The Cubs adamantly deny that Walton was promised a starting job. If Walton’s confidence is shattered, they contend it’s no one’s fault but his own.

“He’s been blaming Jimmy, me, and everyone else for his problems,” said Himes, who released Walton in December. “It was always, ‘Nobody loved (me).’ He went back into his shell and was difficult to communicate with. His attitude was always a question, and he was always worried about money.”

Said Lefebvre: “It really aggravates me that Jerome feels that way. What happened is that he didn’t do the job. We didn’t give his job away. He lost it.

“Jerome Walton has nothing to complain about. Whatever he did in 1989 has disappeared, and the magic is gone. That’s the straight truth.”

Walton, 27, has impressed Angel Manager Buck Rodgers and the rest of the coaching staff this spring, but he knows there are no assurances he will open the season with the Angels. The starting lineup is set, Stan Javier will be one reserve outfielder, and the other spot is up for grabs.

Walton, who lost 10 pounds during the winter and weighs 188 this spring, says he is ready for the challenge. He is not asking for any favors, and does not solicit any promises.

“He should have been a star by now, and there’s no reason he still can’t be,” said Alexander, who has scouted baseball the last 55 years. “I think this might wake him up. Listen, you’re talking about a guy that’s still a pretty damn good player.

“You might be looking at the biggest surprise of the year.”

Said Walton: “It’s just like any other job. If you like your employees, you’re going to bust your butt for them.

“And right now, I feel like an animal that’s just been let out of the zoo.”


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