Tuesday, July 8, 1997
Walker's day off lives on

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Larry Walker
Larry Walker, participating in the All-Star Game home run derby Monday, figures to face Randy Johnson tonight - like it or not.
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CLEVELAND - Larry Walker should have lied. He should have ducked Randy Johnson more indirectly, blaming his manager, or his back or some bad Seattle salmon.

The Colorado slugger should never have admitted he was resting his batting average against baseball's most terrifying pitcher last month, for telling the truth has had terrible consequences. Instead of being celebrated as his game's leading hitter, Walker has been condemned as a coward and a killjoy.

What should have been a one-day story has had the legs of a centipede. It is in the papers. It is on the web. It appears in Walker's mailbox. It is much on his mind. The Rockies' outfielder reached the All-Star break with a batting average of .398, yet he has been made to feel more kinship with Bill Buckner than Ted Williams. His has been a cruel and unusual punishment for a pretty petty crime.

"If I could do it over, I would definitely play," Walker said before Monday's All-Star workout. "It would probably be a good idea just to avoid talking about it every day. I've talked about it more than I've talked about my daughter."

He was discussing it again because Johnson had been named to start tonight's All-Star Game for the American League. Walker is scheduled to hit sixth in the National League lineup. Barring a late-breaking injury - Walker joked about faking a hamstring pull - the two titans should collide no later than the second inning. For whatever that is worth.

Watching Randy Johnson pitch to left-handed hitters is like watching a man pull the wings off a fly. He stands 6-foot-10, throws about 100 miles per hour, and delivers the ball at an angle that makes even brave hitters bail out.

"Unless he makes a blatant mistake, (a left-handed batter) is not going to hit him," said Yankees outfielder Paul O'Neill. "You don't have much room to figure out of it's a fastball or a slider or what to do with it. I went up against him in the playoffs (in 1995) and he made a bad mistake and I fouled it back. I stepped out of the box and said to myself, 'I'm in trouble now.' "

If right-handed hitters have a slightly better shot against Johnson, it is only because his slider doesn't start to break at their temples. Lefties dig in against him at their own peril. Philadelphia's John Kruk stepped in against Johnson in the 1993 All-Star Game in Baltimore, and no player has ever been more forthright about his fear.

Wade Boggs and Rafael Palmeiro habitually skip Johnson's starts, and many American League managers bench left-handed regulars against the Seattle ace so as not to screw up their swings. It only became an issue with Walker because interleague play had been promoted as baseball's effort to arrange more fan-pleasing games, and here was a guy flirting with .400 who wanted no part of a made-for-TV matchup. Walker was ripped in Denver, and chided on ESPN, and belittled by Barry Bonds. Defensively, he began checking the box scores to confirm that he was being scapegoated for what had become standard operating procedure within baseball.

He noticed that Oakland's Jason Giambi did not risk his recent hitting streak against Johnson. He took solace that Seattle's Ken Griffey Jr. said he would also avoid Johnson if the two were not teammates.

"I would have probably done the same thing if I were him," said Atlanta's Chipper Jones, a switch hitter. "I can't imagine (Johnson) as a left-handed hitter. You're talking about a guy who's 6-10, who looks like he's handing the ball to home plate."

Walker's decision was not based on fear of the unknown, but familiarity. He and Johnson were once teammates in Montreal's minor-league system. Walker remembers sharing a taxi with Johnson the day he was traded to Seattle.

"I told him in the cab that this was going to be one of the worst trades in baseball history," Walker said Monday. "You could see that he was going to dominate."

When Walker's reminiscence was recounted to Johnson, the pitcher instinctively sensed the flattery was insincere.

"Now he's buttering me up already," Johnson said. "Oh, Larry, Larry, you haven't changed."

Translation: Larry Walker can expect no mercy from Randy Johnson tonight. He will likely be looking at nothing but lethal sliders and unrelenting heat.

"I don't remember getting a Christmas card from him last year," Johnson said.

"He keeps changing his address," Walker alleged. "They keep coming back marked, 'Return to sender.' "