Nearly halfway into his fifth full season as a professional, former Georgia Southern outfielder Chris Walker is still doing plenty of adjusting.
Suiting up for the Iowa Cubs, Chicago’s Triple-A affiliate, Walker’s learning to deal with going from an everyday player to a seldom-used pinch hitter. It hasn’t been easy.
He began this season in Double-A and was promoted to Triple-A less than a month into the year. Initially, he was doing well while playing regularly but was relegated to the bench after several weeks because of the organization’s abundance of outfielders. These days, Walker’s getting limited at-bats, roughly two every 10 games.
“I’ve gone from four years of being a starter and being in everyday to coming to the park now and not even looking at the lineup because I know I’m not playing,” said Walker, who played for GSU from 1999 until 2002 when the Cubs selected him in the sixth round of the MLB draft. “It’s tough to do.”
Though it’s just one level from the big leagues, Walker said there’s not much difference between Triple-A and Double-A, but the talent is slightly better in Double-A.
Junkball pitchers are more prevalent in Triple-A, he said, and the off-speed stuff is harder to adjust to, particularly for pinch hitters coming in late in the game.
“Most of the top prospects are in Double-A, and a lot of the big-league call-ups come from Double-A,” he said. “In Triple-A, you have a bunch of veteran guys who have been around the game a long time.”
Those older players can be quite helpful, especially the ones who’ve spent time in the major leagues. Several have been with the Iowa Cubs this season, such as third baseman Daryle Ward and pitcher Bret Prinz, who have aided Walker with his mental game, he said.
“At this point, it’s not so much about talent, it’s just whether or not you are mentally strong enough to move up to the big-league level,” said Walker, who will become a free agent at the end of the 2008 season.
A switch hitter, Walker works to stay sharp from both sides of the plate and focuses on hitting left-handed since batting from the right is more natural. In 51 Triple-A games this season, the 5-foot-8, 170-pound outfielder is hitting .197 with 30 hits and nine RBIs. He batted .312 with 24 hits and 13 RBIs in 19 Double-A games this year.
Like all baseball players and coaches, Walker is also dealing with the length of the season, which stretches from spring training in February until the playoffs in October.
“It’s really tough because you are gone from your home - where your family, friends, wives, girlfriends and children are - six to eight months a year,” he said. “It takes a toll on you after a while.”
How does he handle it?
“It stinks to say, but you get used to it,” Walker said. “I try to stay in touch with my family on a daily basis. That’s all you can do. On your off days you try to stay away from the park, stay away from baseball period because it consumes so much of your life. It’s tough, but each guy has his different way of dealing with it.”
Walker’s season has extended well past October the last two years because he opted to play in winter leagues. In 2005 he was on a team in Mexico, and last off-season he played in Venezuela for a month and a half, an experience he considers was one of the best of his life. He enjoyed being in a foreign country and seeing a different culture, one where the fans cared tremendously and it wasn’t unheard of for day games to draw 25,000 people.
“Every game there is pretty much do-or-die,” he said. “They’re into it. Every pitch is like it’s Game 7 of the World Series with two outs and a full count. It’s crazy.”
Walker, who says he keeps up with the Eagle baseball team as much as he can, is hoping to use this off-season to finish his degree in sports management at GSU.
Until then, he’ll continue to travel around the Pacific Coast League where Memphis, St. Louis’ affiliate, is his favorite road stop. It’s as close as he gets to his home town of Alpharetta during the season.
“The ballpark is absolutely beautiful, and it’s a great town,” he said. “You can’t go wrong with Memphis.”
Alex Pellegrino can be reached at (912) 489-9413.