Don’t miss Orioles players, John Means & Paul Fry, as they guest host at our Brews and O’s event!

O's Walker providing relief off field, too

The Baltimore Sun

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. -- A sign is taped to the back of a large glass beverage cabinet in the Orioles' clubhouse that faces reliever Jamie Walker's spring training locker. He can't turn his head to the left without staring directly at it. And like everything else in Walker's world, where you must leave your pretentiousness at the door, it brings great amusement.

The G-rated version would read, "[Mess] with me and you [mess] with the whole trailer park," and it provides another clue that Walker, more blue collar than blue chip, isn't your typical millionaire athlete.

The same goes for his pickup truck, the country-western tunes he sings in the whirlpool, the shorts and T-shirts that constitute his wardrobe, and his idea of taking the family on a cruise, which means piling into his '79 Trans-Am for a Sunday drive through the hills near his home in Overland Park, Kan.

It's most scenic when the leaves are changing color, something Walker will never do.

The Orioles signed him to a three-year, $12 million contract Nov. 21 because they needed a proven left-handed relief specialist with leadership skills, someone with a no-nonsense approach to pitching and preparation. They also factored in his entertainment value, which doesn't show up on a team's payroll.

"Every day, Walker was the guy you wanted to see most, and at the same time, the guy you didn't want to see," said Detroit Tigers pitcher Nate Robertson, a former teammate. "You wanted to hear what he'd say, and then you wanted him to shut up."

Try getting Orioles reliever Chad Bradford to describe Walker, and he'll ask, "How much time do you have?" Then he'll condense the answer into three words: "Backwoods, hillbilly, fun-loving."

"He just kind of keeps things going," said Bradford, who signed nine days after Walker and dresses next to him each morning. "He's always in a good mood, joking around. Great guy to have in the clubhouse. A guy I get along with because we're both from the South. We like to hunt and fish, all that stuff. And he knows what he's doing."

If Walker enjoys the simple pleasures of life, it's because he once had no choice. There wasn't much income to spread among Walker and his two siblings while they were being raised in McMinnville, Tenn. Vegetables that reached their kitchen table grew in the yard, and they chopped wood and stacked it in the spring so the winters were more bearable.

"We didn't have a lot of money, but I never knew I was poor," he said. "My upbringing was very hard, but very fair. I had to earn everything."

He's still doing that at age 35, as a husband and a father of three children. Walker was so desperate to make a living in baseball that he became a replacement player in spring 1995 after another work stoppage, and shortly after his son was born - a decision that keeps him out of the players' union. He spent the past five seasons with the Tigers, often brought into games to record one important out, doing the dirty work that doesn't often get rewarded.

The Orioles had no qualms about spending big on him after last year's bullpen posted the second-worst ERA in the American League.

"He's a veteran guy who helps to control the clubhouse," manager Sam Perlozzo said. "He walked in here one day and said, 'If you want me to do something out there, I can be the bad guy,' and not to worry about it. To me, that means he's a guy who cares about the ballclub."

Rather than make extravagant purchases after signing his contract, Walker spread the wealth among the people closest to him.

"I gave each sibling and each in-law's siblings, my wife's sister and all that, a cash amount as a thank-you for following me and helping me through my career," he said. "Other than that, I'm pretty modest. I did buy some land out in Kansas, just for hunting. Too much of our land's getting in the wrong people's hands, so I'm trying to preserve it for my kids."

Walker's father, James, is a World War II veteran who instilled a strong work ethic in his son, similar to how Cal Ripken Sr. raised his children, only with a country flavor. Weekends were spent on a mountain, and relaxation was accompanied by a soundtrack of whippoorwills chirping and Grand Ole Opry music.

"That's a good time," said Walker, who's allowed one run in eight innings this spring. "That's living life, man. I love it."

The excitement and temptations of the Fort Lauderdale nightlife are wasted on Walker. You won't find a $10 drink in his hand or a menu that requires an interpreter. He's content with some local barbecue and a few Budweisers. And please, no dress codes.

"I ain't going to no damn club, that's for sure," he said.

Asked about his taste in fashion, Walker glanced into his locker and said, "There ain't no taste in here. I don't care what I look like. The only thing I care about is the boots. Other than that, I'll be the worst-dressed. Guaranteed."

The top shelf includes a toy grenade, a gift from Tigers closer Todd Jones.

"I had a bullet in my locker last year," Walker said. "Somebody stole the damn thing, so he brought me that one day. It don't represent nothing. I'm gonna [mess] with some reporters sometime during the year, though."

He's already gotten one reliever's attention.

"I noticed some things in his locker that are a little off the wall," Kurt Birkins said. "That grenade sure worried me when I first got here."

The silliness ends once the bullpen gates swing open and Walker takes the ball from his manager.

"I'm good at separating work and play," he said. "I look at those guys and they're trying to take food off my table. This is what I do for a living. I come to the field each day to beat the other team's [butt]."

Spared a trip to Fort Myers yesterday, Walker worked out at the ballpark for a few hours, dressed and left the complex. The rest of the afternoon and night belonged to him. No matter what he chose to do, it was going to be simple. It was going to be him.

"I don't like living in big cities," he said. "The idea of a perfect day for me would be out in the middle of nowhere, listening to the whippoorwills, no TV, just somebody playing music. Maybe a bug zapper. Them are pretty cool."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad