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Walker Making the Most of It

TIMES STAFF WRITER

You won’t catch Larry Walker getting dragged into the debate over who should be the National League’s most valuable player. And that’s a good thing for Walker, because he doesn’t have the time for that.

Walker is too busy tearing up the league, increasing opposing pitchers’ earned-run averages while chasing several pieces of baseball history. The Colorado Rockies’ all-star right fielder is playing the game at a higher level these days, which has nothing to do with the altitude at Coors Field.

But as for all that MVP business, Walker insists it’s not his concern. Walker said the Rockies are still fighting to reach the postseason, if anyone cares to notice, and everything else is just a sideshow.

Albeit a sideshow worth watching.

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“Everyone wants to make this a thing between me and Mike [Piazza]--and it’s not like that,” Walker said. “Mike has to do his best and I have to do my best, and we’re each trying to help our teams win.

“Mike is having a great season and I’ve had a great season, and I’ve had a lot of fun. I feel good about what I’ve been able to do, but I’m just one of nine guys on the field.”

Just one of nine guys? Maybe in his own mind, but Walker’s numbers tell a different story.

Before Friday night’s game against the Dodgers, Walker led the NL with a .372 batting average, 48 home runs and 139 runs scored. With 126 runs batted in, he was seven behind league leader and teammate Andres Galarraga.

But there’s much more. He also ranked either first or second in nine of the league’s 17 offensive categories.

Colorado shortstop Walt Weiss thought Jose Canseco had the greatest season he had ever seen when the two played together for the Oakland Athletics in 1988. That season, Canseco became the first player to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases. After playing alongside Walker this season, Weiss has revised his thinking.

“But what Larry has done, and what he’s meant to our ballclub, has just been incredible,” Weiss said. “I mean, on top of everything, the guy also has 31 [stolen bases]. This has been something to watch.”

So it’s easy to understand why Colorado Manager Don Baylor has been so vocal in his support for Walker winning the MVP over Piazza. However, Baylor said that recent comments he made about Piazza being one-dimensional were taken out of context.

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“Larry is having one of those years that really makes you take notice, and ever since Larry came to play for me I’ve predicted that he would win the MVP, but it wasn’t ever anything against Mike,” Baylor said. “When I was asked the question about MVP, I was trying to break it down into categories.

“I was trying to define what MVP meant for me. Larry does a lot for us defensively, but I never meant anything against Mike.”

Factor in that Walker, a two-time Gold Glove winner, is one of the league’s best right fielders, and it’s no surprise the Rockies wonder why there is an MVP debate at all.

“We’re used to people ripping us because we play in Coors Field, but look at what he has done,” said Ellis Burks, Colorado’s center fielder. “I don’t care where you play, you can’t diminish the man’s numbers.”

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Actually, Walker has been better on the road.

He had hit 29 home runs away from the Rockies’ launching pad--two short of the record George Foster set with the Cincinnati Reds in 1977. Still, Walker realizes he can’t shake those who don’t like the Rockies’ home.

“I get ripped for hitting home runs there, but it’s not like I haven’t had other good years,” Walker said. “There’s nothing you can do about it.”

Walker has the highest batting average with the most home runs since Hack Wilson of the Cubs hit .356 with 56 homers in 1930. He also began Friday’s game with 399 total bases, setting a club record to go along with his record for home runs. Hank Aaron was the last player to reach that mark, getting exactly 400 total bases in 1959.

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And the triple crown is still within Walker’s grasp. Ducky Joe Medwick of the St. Louis Cardinals was the last NL player to accomplish the feat in 1937.

Not that any of this baseball nostalgia puts a lump in Walker’s throat. The native Canadian grew up dreaming of playing hockey, not baseball.

“I don’t go home and think about this stuff,” said Walker, whom Colorado signed as a free agent from the Montreal Expos in 1995.

“I know some of the history behind the game and about some of the numbers that can be achieved. The 400 total bases is something I feel good about.”

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Walker isn’t sure how to deal with the excitement around him--because he hasn’t been through anything quite like this before.

Few people have. Or even come close.

If the MVP winds up in his hands, Walker will gladly accept it. But he said his approach to the game will not change.

“The thing I’m pretty proud to say,” Walker said, “is that I’m the same goofy guy I was when I first started.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Top of His Game

The Rockies’ Larry Walker is in the top four in six National League statistical categories (through Thursday):

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Category No. Rank Avg. .372 1st Home runs 48 1st Runs 139 1st RBIs 126 3rd Hits 203 2nd Doubles 44 4th

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