PITTSBURGH – From his draft day in mid-June of 2004 to his trade this past December, Neil Walker spent 12 seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. Monday, he walked into PNC Park, and for the first time, headed to the visitor’s dugout with the New York Mets.
Walker, traded to the Mets for Monday night’s starting pitcher, Jon Niese, has played well for the Mets in 2016. Through 53 games, he’s hitting .279 with an .853 OPS and his 13 home runs pace all National League second basemen.
The 30-year-old Pittsburgh native has adjusted well to New York living off the field, and even though he and his family have eschewed Black and Gold for Orange and Blue, it’s clear that Pittsburgh is and will always be home.
He took the opportunity Monday to reflect on his time with the Pirates, and though he admitted that it didn’t end the way he wanted it to, he was appreciative of his time in the organization, especially the time that saw Walker develop into a bona fide Major-League player at the same time the Pirates were returning to prominence.
“I think that 2009 to 2012, there were some really hard times,” Walker recalled. “That was a part of my career where I was trying to establish myself as a major-league player. Those are stressful times for any player. You go out and play hard. Those times, we were scrapping to win 1 of 3 or 1 of 4 in those series. You learn a lot from that. And then you fast forward to 2013 and 2014 and instead of winning 1 of 3, you’re taking 2 of 3, you’re sweeping a lot of teams, and that’s a mentality that’s a group mentality and that’s something that everyone has to be on board for.”
As a native son, Walker is also proud of the way the city and the fans embraced the team during his tenure. Every season he was with the big club, the team’s attendance rose, from 1.614 million fans in 2010 to a franchise-record 2.499 million in 2015. He’s also mindful of the history made during that time.
“I think that getting over that .500 mark in 2013 was something really, really cool and something that I take a lot of pride in,” Walker said. “Obviously, getting into the playoffs, being a part of that for three straight years in a row and seeing how much baseball has come back in this region was something that I take a lot of pride in. From tee ball all the way up to the Wild Card Game last year, this was my home for baseball.
“I can’t say enough about the fans here. I’ve always felt warmly accepted by the people of this city, whether it’s people I know or people I don’t know.”
As for a legacy, Walker said that he believes that will ultimately be up to others to decide, but he feels comfortable regardless of how he’s remembered.
“I think that you can live with what happens when you have that mentality and you put the team first,” he said. “I hope that the way that I thought I played was indicative of what this city is about: kind of a blue-collar mentality, grinding games out, grinding at-bats out, playing hard, hanging in there at second base, those types of things.”
Walker still maintains his home in the Pittsburgh area, and he was able to sleep in his own bed for the first time this season, along with swim in the new pool he had installed for the first time. Despite his Manhattan zip code, he feels a connection to his hometown that is likely to last a lifetime.
“There [are] a lot of things that myself, my wife, teammates, friends and family are passionate about that we’re still going to be involved with in this town and through this organization,” he said “I don’t anticipate that changing.”
- Niese (4.36 ERA) will face his former teammate, Stephen Matz (2.60 ERA) on the hill. Niese has given up two runs or fewer in four consecutive starts, and he has lowered his ERA from 5.62 to 4.36. His 89 ground-ball outs is 12th in the National League and he’s induced 11 double plays, the second most among NL pitchers.
- The Mets (31-24) are 1.5 games ahead of the Pirates (30-26) for the first NL Wild Card spot coming into the teams’ three-game series. The clubs will meet again next week in New York.
- The rest of the series will feature Juan Nicasio vs. Jacob deGrom on Tuesday and then Francisco Liriano against Noah Syndergaard on Wednesday. All three games have a 7:05 p.m. first pitch.
- Francisco Cervelli returns to the lineup tonight, after missing three games from getting hit in the foot with a pitch. David Freese will miss his fourth game with a hand injury, also suffered by being hit with a pitch. Cole Figueroa will make his second start of the season and his first at third base
— Pirates (@Pirates) June 6, 2016