Walker does Canada proud

BOB ELLIOTT -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:51 AM ET

The card game was underway between two outfielders in the St. Louis Cardinals clubhouse.

Reggie Sanders vs. Larry Walker.

"It's called Canadian rummy, you start with three cards, then four and then ... ," Sanders tried to explain before the questioner shook his head and waved his hands, lost in the rules.

"Maybe it's a West Coast of Canada thing," Sanders said with a laugh an hour before he and another West Coast of Canada thing, Walker, of Maple Ridge, B.C., hit back-to-back, first-inning homers off Chad Gaudin.

Walker is the tip of the iceberg of the B.C. baseball explosion, which also features Ryan Dempster (of Gibsons) with the Chicago Cubs; Justin Morneau (New Westminster) of the Minnesota Twins; Rich Harden (Victoria) of the Oakland A's; Jason Bay (Trail) of the Pittsburgh Pirates; and Jeff Francis (North Delta) of the Colorado Rockies.

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa walked by the card table, eyeglasses resting on his nose, with that professorial air.

La Russa picked up a newspaper and said to Walker: "Someone wrote in one of these papers that YOU were the best ever position player from Canada?"

Walker shrugged and played his card.

"I can name three better," La Russa said and off he went.

Minutes later La Russa returned to say: "I've got them, I just have to put them in the proper order."

Later he gave Walker his verdict: The three better Canadian players than Walker were Terry Puhl, Kevin Reimer and Rob Ducey.

Puhl, of Melville, Sask., played 15 seasons, mostly for the Houston Astros, was an all-star in 1978 and hit 62 homers and drove in 435 runs.

Reimer, who was born in Macon, Ga., when his father Gerry was playing minor-league baseball, grew up in Enderby, B.C., and played six seasons, mostly with the Texas Rangers. He hit 52 career homers and finished with 204 RBIs.

Ducey, of Cambridge, played 13 seasons, hitting 31 homers and driving in 146 runs.

La Russa is a four-time manager of the year and has managed three teams to 2,144 wins combined.

This surely was some clubhouse needling, but you never know.

"He's so much fun to tease, of course I was joking," La Russa said in his office. "Larry Walker is not only the greatest Canadian, he ranks with the best position players of his era from Latin America and North America."

Walker's best year, 1997 with the Colorado Rockies, was one to remember. He hit .366 with 46 doubles, four triples, 49 homers, 130 RBIs, a .366 batting average and a .720 slugging percentage.

After Walker's National League MVP award, Neil Munro, the STATS Inc. guru from North Bay, ranked Walker's season as the fifth best in NL history. This was pre-Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire.

What does former teammate Justin Speier remember about playing with Walker in Colorado?

"He could do weird stuff," Speier said. "During batting practice, he'd field a ball, spin 360 degrees around and throw it right into the bucket in shallow centre."

Swish, or maybe it was a plunk.

"In Colorado, he'd lean all his bats against the dugout ledge," Speier said. "Once he struck out on a bad call (and) he flipped his bat. It went end over end and landed right where he picked it up."

Thanks, but we were looking for something he did on the field.

"Oh, third deck, third deck, third deck ... he'd hit homers up there all the time," Speier said.

Walker's first-inning homer last night was the 374th of his career. He added his 375th in the fifth inning.

"He could do it all -- steal bases, hit for power, hit for average, run the bases and throw," said former Jays manager Jim Fregosi, now with the Atlanta Braves. "Compared to guys in my era he'd be a similar player to Al Kaline or Roger Maris."

Now, like Maris, Walker is finishing his career with St. Louis.

Three times in the previous 10 seasons -- 1996, 2000 and 2004 -- a variety of injuries restricted Walker to less than 90 games played.

"If Walker hadn't been hurt so much, he'd have a chance to go to Cooperstown and the Hall of Fame," Fregosi said.


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