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The day Larry Walker made us cry

The number retirement for the Hall of Famer represents an emotional legacy in Colorado

Sports don’t usually make me cry. Sure, I’ve cried during films such as Field of Dreams and The Rookie, but in person, it just doesn’t happen.

On Saturday, September 25, 2021, I cried watching a sporting event.

I joined a sellout crowd of over 45,000 fans to celebrate and witness the jersey number retirement of one of the greatest Rockies of all time. It didn’t matter that the team was out of contention or the fact they were about to play the best team in the National League, I was there for one thing: Larry Kenneth Robert Walker.

The roar of the crowd was deafening as we stood to applaud and cheer for Walker as he took the field to the tune of “Crazy Train” and joined his family. It was a momentous occasion because not only were we retiring just the second Rockies jersey number, but we were celebrating our first-ever Hall of Famer.

I never had the chance to truly witness and appreciate the greatness of Larry Walker in person. He signed with the Rockies a year before I was born, won the MVP when I was doing whatever little kids do, and his career was over before I really became obsessed with baseball. Despite my lack of knowledge as a child, I was still aware that this Walker guy was important and a darn good player.

I had the luxury of having two original Rockies fans in my family because of my dad and oldest brother. They nurtured and passed on a lifelong obsession with Rockies baseball. Despite watching little to no games in my youth, their influence blossomed. I can still vividly recall the cadence of Rockies public address announcer Alan Roach saying “Larrrr-ry Walk-er!” I knew that Walker was one of my favorite players because he was special to others, which in turn made him special to me.

A career of humility

Walker was able to make his induction into the Hall of Fame more about others than himself, especially Rockies fans. For almost 30 years, baseball in Colorado has been viewed nationally as a joke due to the performance of the team and the misunderstanding of altitude. Walker himself battled against the bias that he benefited simply because of the thin air.

For the entirety of his Rockies career and the campaign for the Hall of Fame, Walker was determined to eliminate that Coors Field bias. He knew what a “CR” cap in Cooperstown would mean for the Colorado Rockies organization and, more importantly, the fans. That cap validated baseball in Colorado and instilled a sense of joy and accomplishment that has not been prevalent in Colorado Rockies baseball. I felt that I, too, had been inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame along with Larry.

His speech represented the humility by which he approached the game. In a moment that was unquestionably all about Larry Walker, he deflected and made sure the moment belonged to everyone. He recognized the front office, his coaches, his teammates, the grounds crew, the ushers, the concessions, the clubbies and everyone else that helped him along the way. He knew what it meant for a city he loved to feel included in Cooperstown.

“I want you to view that plaque with a certain amount of pride,” Walker said during his speech. “I want you to see it with your face on it, not mine… Today I don’t say I have a plaque in Cooperstown, I say WE have a plaque in Cooperstown.”

Growing the game

I then felt a sense of pride for the many Canadians that were celebrating Larry Walker as just the second Canada-born player to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. My grandma was born and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and my mother recalled my grandma loved Larry Walker because, “he was Canadian and she thought he was good looking.” My grandma didn’t really know or care much about baseball while living in southern Colorado, but even she knew how important Larry Walker was to her people.

Baseball can thrive in Canada because of Larry Walker. We can see and hear the influence Walker had in Canada thanks to the stellar careers of players like Joey Votto and Justin Morneau. He validated them in their pursuits of baseball and proved that they can achieve something more if they work hard for their dreams.

Morneau went so far as to call Walker, his childhood hero, and ask for his permission to wear number 33 when he signed with the Rockies in 2014. Morneau was able to send in a video to Walker’s celebration saying, “hopefully I made you proud.” If Walker had stuck with hockey as a young man, then baseball would have probably lost out on a lot of phenomenal Canadian players.

My thoughts then turned to his significance in Colorado. We have heard about his career statistics and we know how good of a player he was on the field. Sometimes we focus so much on the numbers that we forget to keep in mind the fact that character and integrity are an integral part of the Hall of Fame voting process. When I think of Larry Walker, I don’t think of his WAR, or his xWOBA, or his WRC+. Instead, I think of the endearing qualities he demonstrates as a person.

Walker never thought of himself as a Hall of Famer. He never played for statistics or milestones. He played for his teammates, for the fans, and for the love of the game. It was reiterated during the number retirement ceremony of the time he opted to sit out late in a game in favor of a pinch-hitter rather than try for his fourth homer of the day. During his own speech, Walker took the time to recognize his own teammate Todd Helton, calling him the greatest Rockie of all time.

Walker’s goofy nature aided his prominence in the game. He was the physical embodiment of the childlike joy and wonder we all had while playing and watching baseball in the early days of our youth. He never once took the game for granted and gave it his all each and every time on the field. He played for the true love of the game.

As the curtain was dropped and the number 33 — surrounded with a golden circle with “HOF” emblazoned on it — was unveiled in centerfield it finally began to hit me: the Rockies have a player in the Hall of Fame. The light from a setting sun had hit the gold just perfectly, to shine in a moment that seemed almost like a fantasy. I couldn’t believe that it was finally happening.

“You are the reason we play.”

15 years after he last played on the field, I still look up his highlights on YouTube and will feel that sense of awe and wonder at how the Rockies were so lucky to witness his legacy. I still laugh at the video of his tour of Coors Field, his interactions with the fans in right field, and that memorable at-bat against Randy Johnson at the All-Star Game. Countless moments remind me that Larry Walker was just a kid having fun playing a game he learned to love.

From now until the end of time, the number 33 will mean only one thing in Colorado. It will remind us of what it means to be a Hall of Fame type of player, a Hall of Fame type of human being, and a Hall of Fame type of fan. From now on, 33 will only mean Larry Walker.

“You are the reason we play,” said Walker during his speech. He placed an emphasis on the fans because he knew how much the moment meant to them. They were people that had cheered him on, campaigned for his Hall of Fame inclusion, and simply honored him that day. Larry Walker is the embodiment of baseball in Colorado and a reminder of what baseball can be in the Mile High City.

On that day, Larry Walker made baseball in Colorado feel important. On that day he made the Rockies feel important. On that day, he made his fans and teammates feel important. On that day, he made me feel important, and that moment brought tears to my eyes.