PITTSBURGH – Neil Walker grew up watching the battle of the Pittsburgh Pirates. He spent his 20s helping the franchise escape the futility of two decades, and part of his 30s worked in the sophisticated melting pot of New York City.
To ask more of baseball seemed greedy.
The longtime major league second baseman said Wednesday he had retired, ending a 12-year career during which he became a permanent fixture in the group that brought his hometown Pirates back to the playoffs and postseason with both the Mets as well as with the Yankees.
The 35-year-old spent 2020 with Philadelphia before being released last September. He spent the off-season staying in baseball shape. About four weeks ago it became clear that an opportunity to move on was not going to come right away. So he decided to move on instead of holding on.
“I’ll try to meet my family and friends and do a lot of things that I haven’t been able to do in a long time like summer vacation and July 4th and pirate games and have family events that you missed spring and summer” said Walker on Wednesday.
Walker hit 267 with 149 home runs and 609 RBIs in 1,306 games with six teams, the vast majority of them in Pittsburgh. The Pirates grabbed him with the 11th overall selection in the 2004 amateur draft, and together, Walker and midfielder Andrew McCutchen became part of the core that eventually – and ultimately briefly – lifted the franchise out of mediocrity.
Walker reached the majors in 2009 and made the final when Pittsburgh won their 82nd game in 2013, ending a streak of 20 straight defeats. This year culminated in a playoff berth and wildcard win over Cincinnati during what felt like an exorcism at PNC Park during a dizzying night.
“Forget about every individual award I’ve had, Silver Slugger for everything,” Walker said. “That moment was so proud for me. I won’t forget a second of the whole game and all night because I felt it. My family felt it. My friends felt it. My teammates felt it and they finally understood what this city and this community are, how passionate they are for their sport. “
The Pirates reached the playoffs three years in a row from 2013-15. However, when Walker was in arbitration and approached the free hand, Pittsburgh distributed him to the Mets for pitcher Jon Niese in December 2015. Walker understands that the economics of baseball doesn’t lend itself to storybook endings for players who aren’t stars but eternal grinders.
“As someone created by this organization and coming to this organization, it would have been amazing to have played for Pittsburgh my entire career,” he said. “But right where baseball is and the economic things and the business end, it’s naive to think that. For 99.9% of gamers, that’s just not the reality. That was a harsh reality for me. “
One that included some culture shock when he reached New York, where the player known in western Pennsylvania as “The Pittsburgh Kid” became largely anonymous. He joked that the majority of the people who recognized him while he was in New York were the bouncers at his apartment building.
“To be honest, that was kind of nice,” he said. “My role in Pittsburgh – and I enjoyed the role – was to be the one who understood that not only pirate baseball but also Pittsburgh sports media and Pittsburgh sports in general played a role. Even when I went to bigger markets like the Mets and Yankees and the Phillies, my role in those places was certainly a little different. It wasn’t so much a trailblazer; It was more of a behind-the-scenes guide. “
Walker, who won the 2014 Silver Slugger as the best attacking second baseman in the National League, played well for the Mets in 2016 when he scored .282 and had the best career with 23 home runs. However, New York sent him to Milwaukee in August 2017, and Walker spent his final season in the major leagues on a series of one-year contracts, the last with Philadelphia last summer.
Even so, Walker says he doesn’t regret it. And he doesn’t have harsh feelings towards the pirates. He is open to joining the organization in any form, including perhaps a role as a broadcaster.
While he may no longer be on the field, Walker plans to stay in the game. He is about to help build a baseball complex in the northern suburbs that would make it easier for local high school goers to get the Boy Scouts’ attention so they don’t have to do what he did and across the US have to travel to try this to get someone to notice.
The pirates started a run with 100 wins, 100 losses and everything in between. A trip that he believes will prepare him for whatever comes next.
“I have no regrets,” he said.