Pittsburgh native, Neil Walker readies for his return tonight to the “steel city,” to face a team he spent his entire career with until this season. He was born in the city that drafted him in 2004, a fairytale story for a hometown hero. Walker grew up a fan of the Pirates and it was a dream come true that brought him to play for the team for which he grew up rooting for.
The feel good story began to sour just a couple seasons ago as the time had come to provide Walker with a contract extension. The two sides could not agree to any terms, and the Pirates eventually opted to trade their popular second-baseman to the New York Mets for left-hander Jon Niese. Walker doesn’t believe he could have been dealt a better card than playing for the Mets in Queens.
“I’m happy,” Walker said. “I’m sure there could’ve been several other places where I could’ve gone, but felt pretty fortunate about where I landed. This has been a great fit for me. It’s as much as I could’ve asked for, given the circumstances.” (TribLive)
Walker, a career .272/.338/.431 hitter with the Pirates has made the transition quite well to New York. In a contract year, he has shined for the Metropolitans hitting to a .279/.348/.505 slash. He was provided a vote of confidence with the Mets from the start that he never truly felt with the Pirates. The Mets have shown the confidence in Walker hitting from both sides of the plate even though he struggled mightily from the right side prior to this year.
“That kind of confidence is pretty valuable to a player,” Walker said. “Not that I felt slighted in Pittsburgh, but (the Pirates) like to platoon guys and do things like that. To come into this situation, knowing it wouldn’t even be a question of having to look over my shoulder all the time, that was very helpful.”
Walker has rewarded them in every way possible thus far. He has provided solid defense from a position that lacked it in recent years. He has also shown to be a force in the middle of the lineup with 13 homers – 6th most in MLB – in his first 55 games of the season. The decision to part with a hometown hero such as Walker was no easy task, as noted by general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Neal Huntington.
“I was struck by the sense that this was real — we were going to take a player who was incredibly popular, who had played a big role for us, and move on from him,” Huntington said.
Walker, previously known as the “Pittsburgh Kid,” a moniker given to a player who represented the city he played in, not just because of the team name on the jersey but his hometown roots. Letting a player of his caliber and popularity go is never an easy task for an organization. It worked out for both teams though to this point as the Pirates were in need of pitching and Niese has so far provided a good boost while pitching to a 5-2 record and sporting an ERA of 4.36 in 11 starts.
The trade though could not have worked out better for this Mets team. The decision to not re-sign Daniel Murphy came with much criticism as the pressure mounted for the newly acquired Walker to fill the shoes of a playoff hero. Manager, Terry Collins could not be happier with how Walker has responded to what was a high-pressure situation.
“He’s been over and above better than I anticipated,” Collins said. “He’s played absolutely great at second base. The reports were he didn’t play much against lefties. He’s done nothing but hit lefties here.”
All things come to a head on Monday night as Walker makes his return to Pittsburgh. In a great sense of fate, the pitcher he will get to battle against in the series opener will be the man he was traded for in Jon Niese. Emotions will be riding high for both players, but probably a bit higher for the Pittsburgh native. Walker hopes for a positive reception from a fanbase he gave his all to since making his debut in 2009.
“You try to approach it as any other day, but it’s certainly going to be emotional,” Walker said. “It’s different, not being there every day. Not for the better or for the worse; it’s just … different. I hope it’s a positive reception.”