Career winding down for 'gifted' Walker

Larry Walker pinch hit last Sunday with runners at the corners and none out. Anything in play would have scored the run; Walker fouled out weakly to the catcher. It was such a bad swing, St. Louis manager Tony La Russa apologized to Walker for putting him in that spot.

That's how far Walker has fallen, and that's why he says it's "more than likely" he'll retire after this season. He is 38 years old, and his enormous ability and his body have eroded due to age and injury.

Walker has had eight surgeries. His latest ailment is a herniated disc in his neck which required a cortisone shot Monday so he could play (his second this season). Once a talent so giant, he turned heads every game. Now it hurts him to turn his head.

"They put a needle in my neck, and it went down and nearly touched my spinal cord,'' Walker said. "It was a little bit more comfortable than the first time. It hurts when I look to my left.''

The retirement talk is real. The pain involved in playing is also very real, as is the pain of knowing he can't do many of the things he used to do. He has an option for $12 million next season, but surely the Cardinals won't pick that up. The idea of playing for Canada in the World Baseball Classic next spring intrigues Walker, but if this season doesn't end his career, that tournament likely will – if his bruised body holds up.

And when his career ends, we will wonder what to do with Larry Walker, an interesting guy who has had an interesting career. Felipe Alou, one of Walker's managers (in Montreal), once said Walker was the best baserunner he had ever seen. Jim Leyland, another of Walker's managers (in Colorado), used to call Walker "the best player I have ever seen.''

"Baseball, ping pong, foosball, whatever, Larry is an extremely gifted individual, '' said Orioles pitcher Steve Reed, who played with Walker for five years in Colorado. "In baseball, there isn't anything that he can't do. In '97, he was one of the three best in the game.''

That year, Walker won the National League's Most Valuable Player Award, partly on the strength of 409 total bases, the most since Stan Musial in 1948. He won batting titles in '97, '98 and 2001; from 1997-99, he batted .369. He won six Gold Gloves. His .312 career batting average and 377 home runs are matched or exceeded by just seven players in baseball history: Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Stan Musial, Mike Piazza and Manny Ramirez. None of the other seven are close to Walker's 229 stolen bases.

Walker is currently among 21 players in history to have a .300 batting average, a .400 on-base percentage and a .500 slugging percentage, the holy trinity for hitters. Thirteen of those 21 who are eligible for the Hall of Fame are in. Joe Jackson, ineligible for the Hall of Fame, would increase the list to 22.

"I remember [pitcher] Jim Deshaies petitioned to get one vote a few years ago; if I get one vote, I'll be happy,'' said Walker, with a laugh. "Am I a Hall of Famer? Probably not.''

Walker likely won't make it to Cooperstown partly because he played nine years in Colorado, where the air is thin and the offensive numbers are thick. Entering this week, Walker's home (from Montreal and St. Louis, too) and road numbers are decidedly different. At home: .348 average, .637 slugging, .431 on-base, 211 home runs and 737 RBI. On the road: .277 average, .494 slugging, .369 on-base, 166 homers and 555 RBI.

"I completely understand,'' Walker said, when asked if voters will hold it against him that he played most of his career at Coors Field. "It's a hitter's paradise. That is the truth.''

Walker likely won't make the Hall partly because he has been hurt so much; in only one season did he play as many as 150 games. It crushed Leyland that he didn't have Walker in the lineup every day. Sometimes, Leyland would leave the No. 3 hole open on the lineup card and wait for the trainer to say if Walker could go. "We had to tell him he had to stop running into walls, his hockey-style of play,'' Reed said. "He played a lot of times when he shouldn't have.''

At times, Walker wonders what an injury-free career would have meant. "Man oh man, what would have happened if I hadn't gotten hurt? It drove me nuts, all the breaking and tearing," he said. "The year of my second batting title, I couldn't even straighten out my elbow. I had to shorten my swing, lost some of my power and hit singles. I had major reconstructive surgery on my knee in 1988, and 17 years later it still hurts. Injuries are an excuse for when you don't play well, and I'm not going to do that. This is no time for injuries or talking about retirement. We're 8½ games ahead.''

If this is indeed the final season for Walker, it couldn't end any better than with a World Series championship for the Cardinals, which would be a first for Walker. "The parade,'' he said, "would last the rest of my life.''

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Baseball Tonight.