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Neil Walker Lives His Faith On and Off the Baseball Field
BY Trent Beattie
Neil Walker has been able to live out a childhood dream of playing for his hometown Pittsburgh Pirates.
After being taken in the first round of the 2004 Major League Baseball Draft, he diligently worked his way through the minor leagues.
He made his major-league debut as a pinch hitter in September of 2009, and he has been the team’s second baseman since 2010.
Walker’s father, Tom, a former major-league pitcher, has been instrumental in his son’s baseball success, teaching him not only proper mechanics, but also a proper philosophy of play.
However, had Tom Walker followed through on a plan he had in 1972, his son’s story would never have happened.
In time for Father’s Day, Neil Walker spoke with Register correspondent Trent Beattie about his intriguing family history, love of baseball, and, most importantly, his strong faith.
You have a thought-provoking family story that involves Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente.
Roberto Clemente was known for being an outstanding player with the Pirates, winning 12 Gold Glove Awards, four batting titles and two World Series championships. More importantly, though, he was known for doing a lot of charitable work off the field — particularly in Puerto Rico.
In December of 1972, my father happened to be in Puerto Rico playing winter ball. He was helping Clemente, along with a few other guys, to load a plane full of supplies to aid those affected by the recent Nicaraguan earthquake.
There was some trouble with distribution of supplies from previous flights, so my father wanted to go along with Clemente in order to make sure these supplies actually got to the people they were intended for. However, Clemente told him to stay behind. The plane was already filled beyond capacity, so having more weight wouldn’t have helped. In fact, the plane crashed, resulting in the death of Clemente at age 38.
It’s strange to think about now, but my father was so close to death. One decision was the difference, as far as his living or dying, which, of course, affected my own existence and that of my siblings. It’s not that we would have had vastly different lives, but we wouldn’t even exist at all if our father had gone on that plane.
We tend to take life for granted, but it really is a gift from God. In Jeremiah 1:5, the Lord says, "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you." That was true of Jeremiah, but also of everyone else. None of us gives life to ourselves, so we have to be thankful for all the happenings of divine Providence that make our lives possible.
God’s generosity to us is the foundation of our respect for and protection of every human life, from the moment of conception.
In my case, it’s especially interesting that now — so many years after the plane crash — I’m playing with the Pirates, the same team Clemente played for. He made it possible for me to exist and also to be able to play baseball in Pittsburgh, where he spent his entire professional career.
How has your father influenced your baseball career?
Having played professionally himself, my father knows firsthand what’s necessary to play at this level. There’s a lot of work that goes into it; you can’t just show up and expect things to go well. My father and mother both instilled in me the value of work. I was taught that if I wanted something, I had to work for it. Nothing was going to be handed to me.
Yet, at the same time, there was no pressure on me to play professionally. I think that’s an important thing to point out, because so many parents these days are too demanding on their kids athletically. For too many of them, it’s all about great results — right now. That’s not a healthy mindset to have, especially for young kids who are still learning how to play.
My parents wanted me to do well, but they were also realistic. They didn’t expect more out of me than I could deliver at any given point. They knew that because baseball had enough challenges of its own, they didn’t need to add any to my plate. Instead, they taught me about positive preparation and giving a great effort each day.
If you put all you have into it, you can look yourself in the mirror at the end of the day and be content with that effort.
Whenever challenges or setbacks occured, my father would remind me not to dwell on them and to look ahead. He wanted me to remember that tomorrow is a new day, so he would like to say, "The sun will rise tomorrow."
Have you always taken the Catholic faith seriously?
I was fortunate to come from a good family. We had rules and standards to live by, regardless of what others were doing. I went to a Catholic grade school that was fairly sheltered, but then attended a public high school. That was a big change for me because of how some of my former friends were acting. It was a time when I could have gone the party route, but instead took the healthier road.
Was that similar to what you experienced as an 18-year-old minor leaguer in 2004?
It was, but in high school it was very straightforward because of the fact I was living with my parents. They made it clear what was expected of me and what wasn’t. When you’re away from home for the first time, there can be the thrill of independence, but also the void of loneliness. It’s easy to get swept away with what almost everyone else is doing, even if you know deep down that it’s not the right thing to do.
It can be even more of a problem when, as a professional athlete, you have lots of money.
Transition times are when you experience firsthand why the Church is so necessary. Then you see the value in the sacraments more distinctly than usual, because you’re in a position of need rather than one of comfort or self-sufficiency.
What is a cherished facet about the Catholic Church for you?
One of the things I appreciate most is the Church’s writing, assembling and safeguarding of the Scriptures. We take it for granted that we have a Bible, but we need to remember that it came to us from God through his Church. The Holy Spirit used human instruments to bring us the written word of God.
To start with the writing of the Scriptures, it’s good to remember that every writer of a New Testament book was Catholic. From Matthew to John, they all were members of the one Church that Jesus Christ founded, which was the only church around in the first century A.D.
Moving on to the assembling of which books to include, it’s good to remember that there’s no inspired table of contents page tossed down from the sky by God. The choice of which books to include in the canon was determined by the one Church Jesus Christ founded.
Concerning the safeguarding of the Scriptures, it’s good to remember that monks in the early Church painstakingly copied every page of the Bible by hand. They didn’t have keyboards or printing presses, so they had a lot of careful work to do in order to maintain and protect the written word of God.
Without the prayer and work of the Catholic Church, we wouldn’t have the Bible today. It’s something Catholics and non-Catholics should think about more often. This reality is explained further in a book called Where We Got the Bible by Henry Graham and also in a booklet called Scripture Alone? by Joel S. Peters.
Do you have a patron saint?
My middle name is Martin, taken after St. Martin of Tours, one of the first non-martyrs to be honored as a saint. He was a convert to Christianity and became a monk. Even after he reluctantly became a bishop, he still lived a monastic lifestyle. It reminds you somewhat of Pope Francis: a simple man with a deep faith.
Do you think people pay too little attention to saints and too much attention to professional athletes?
As a kid, I would look up to MLB players, thinking what they did was very special. It seemed like so much fun to me that I wanted to be a part of it one day. I never gave up that goal, and it has been fun playing professionally. Yet at the same time, I’ve learned along the way that some of my ideas about pro ball were inaccurate.
Regardless of how good a player is, he’s always a human being. That’s why I often wonder what young people see in me as being special. I try to play baseball at a high level, but there are countless other people who try to do their jobs very well, too. People don’t pay nearly as much attention to them, though.
I do see the fame as a plus, however. It’s something that can be used to brighten someone’s day. You can sign a ball with a Scripture verse on it or you can visit kids in the hospital. As long as you’re using fame for the good of others and the glory of God, it’s a great thing.
So you wouldn’t mind having any future sons play in the majors?
No, I wouldn’t mind at all. It would be neat to carry on the family tradition, in a sense. I could help my own sons as my father helped me.
Playing professionally isn’t the most important thing, though. Sports at any level can be a great way for fathers and sons to interact. As a kid, you learn so much on a practical, hands-on level, and you know the love and acceptance that comes from physical interaction.
Sports are a sacramental thing, not in the sense of being one of the seven official sacraments of the Church, but in the more general sense of physical matter being used to point to a greater reality. A father and son throwing a ball back and forth is not just about an object changing places by flying through the air. It has a much deeper meaning. It testifies to the father’s love for his son, which is expressed far more clearly than mere words would.
My wife, Nicole, and I are looking forward to raising kids of our own, so I want to be able to guide them like my father guided me. It will be wonderful to pass along the gift of life that has been passed along so freely to me.
With one different decision in 1972, I wouldn’t even be here, so I have an acute awareness of how important and fragile life is. I want to remember that when raising my own kids.
Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.