PITTSBURGH (AP)—When Pirates second baseman Neil Walker takes the field at PNC Park, he needs only to glance over his shoulder at the 21-foot Roberto Clemente Wall in right field for inspiration.
Walker, one of the majors’ top rookies, grew up in Pittsburgh hearing countless stories about one of baseball’s greatest outfielders and a man whose influence in his native Puerto Rico extends far beyond the diamond.
|TOP ROOKIE—Pittsburgh Pirate Neil Walker rounds the bases after hitting a solo home run against the Chicago Cubs in the third inning during a baseball game in Chicago, Sept. 1.
While Clemente died 13 years before Walker was born, the two will be forever linked by the night of Dec. 31, 1972— when Clemente’s plane, jammed with relief supplies for Nicaraguan earthquake victims, crashed off the waters of San Juan. Walker’s father, Tom, was one of the last to see Clemente alive and had been minutes away from climbing aboard the plane himself.
“I can remember it like it was yesterday,” said Tom Walker, a major league pitcher for six seasons from 1972-77. “We left the airport, and it was the last time I ever saw Roberto Clemente. He saved my life by not letting me get on that plane.”
Walker is currently one of the NL’s hottest hitters, going 16 of 36 (.444) since Aug. 24. He has seven hits in his last two games, and has homered in four of his last five despite playing on the majors’ worst team. His average is the third highest among all rookies with at least 300 at-bats.