Alex Goodlett for The New York Times
Neil Walker knew it would end. Pittsburgh had been part of him for 30 years, from the day he was born there, in 1985, to the day he was drafted by the Pirates, in 2004, right up until last December. He had one year left until free agency and had been unable to agree to a long-term contract with his hometown team.
“If you had a son, you’d want him to grow up like Neil — he was that guy in Pittsburgh,” said Don Kelly, the veteran utility player who is married to Walker’s sister. “He was the role model. There’s a business side of the game, and as a player, you understand it. But it’s tough.”
Just before the winter meetings, Walker was at home near Pittsburgh with Don Seymour, a family friend who had coached him in youth baseball. They talked about possible landing spots in a trade, and Seymour said he doubted the Mets would part with their second baseman, Daniel Murphy, who had starred in the playoffs. Even if they did, Seymour said, New York was bound to be a drastic change.
Walker was not so sure. The possibility of playing for the Mets, who had just reached the World Series, intrigued him. He had been to the postseason the past three years in Pittsburgh, without winning a series, and had heard good things about the Mets’ clubhouse.
“He said, ‘Hey, I’m going to be the same person whether I go to New York or L.A. or Minnesota,’ ” Seymour said. “He’s very comfortable in his own skin, he’s going to be himself, and his values are going to serve him well.”
The Mets — who open a three-game series in Pittsburgh on Monday — traded a spare starting pitcher, Jon Niese, for Walker last Dec. 9. Murphy left for the Washington Nationals and has continued his surge, but Walker has been just as valuable to the Mets. He is hitting .284, leads N.L. second basemen in homers with 13, and has thrived from both sides of the plate.
“The reports were he didn’t play much against lefties, didn’t hit lefties very well — he’s done nothing but hit lefties here,” Manager Terry Collins said, adding later, “He’s really been extra special for us.”
Walker batted .237 with no homers against left-handers last season. This season, he is hitting .341 off left-handers, with five homers. He concentrated in spring training on eliminating his toe tap as a right-handed hitter, planting his front foot more quickly and giving himself more time to stay back in his swing.
“The reason I was confident about it was that I had done it in the past, and I was a very good right-handed hitter in the minor leagues, in Triple-A and my first couple of years in the big leagues,” Walker said. “I may have gotten into some bad habits mechanically, and I didn’t make the adjustments necessary. It’s a big ballpark in Pittsburgh, and when I got up there, I was flying out a lot to left-center field. I was like, ‘I’m not going to have a lot of success doing this,’ so I kind of altered my approach to what made me a good right-handed hitter.”
Walker said his homer last Monday, the only run of a 1-0 victory over the Chicago White Sox, would have been an out at PNC Park.
“That’s my strength, from both sides,” Walker said. “I hit a lot of fly balls — a lot of long fly balls.”
Seymour was there when Walker, 12, hit homers from both sides of the plate in a game in Buffalo with his travel team. Soon enough, Walker was playing for U.S.A. Baseball, and the Pirates made him a first-round draft pick.
Walker went pro, while a friend — Seymour’s son, Clint — played at Eastern Kentucky. They stayed close, and for a while Clint Seymour found work at a bar near PNC Park. He moved to Charleston, S.C., and was training to be a financial adviser when he died in April 2014 of a head injury sustained in a street fight. Dalton Clarke of Mount Pleasant, S.C., was found guilty this April of assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature, and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
“Anybody that knows Clint knew how much heart he had, and that was something I try to emulate, as a friend of his, how passionate he was for baseball,” Walker said. “It kind of rubbed off on me as we grew older and we pushed each other as baseball players and as people. I guess part of my heart in baseball is also his heart, too, and I try to remind myself on a daily basis how fortunate I am to play this game at this level.”
Walker left the Pirates during a road trip and was with Don Seymour at the hospital when Clint was taken off life support. Before Walker returned to the team, he and Seymour had resolved to start a foundation in Clint’s memory, the Clint Seymour Play Ball Fund (clintplayball.com), which sponsors youth camps, hosts clinics and awards scholarships.
Seymour said the fund had given him a sense of purpose since his son’s death, and he emphasized the goal of using baseball to promote values like respect for others. Walker, in his way, embodied that with the Pirates, never tiring of community appearances or news media requests. The hometown-boy-makes-good angle was irresistible, and Walker dutifully obliged.
“I’ve had less on my plate here than I did in Pittsburgh, with the day-to-day things,” Walker said. “I’ve kind of been able to delve into just baseball here, come to the ballpark, prepare myself, and go play. And it’s not that I didn’t enjoy it in Pittsburgh, but it’s like with David Wright here — I was always answering questions, and I was fine with it, but it was every single day.”
Walker misses some things about Pittsburgh, like his mother’s home-cooked meals after Sunday day games, and living so close to his family. He has two brothers and a sister, and all live within five miles of one another in the Pittsburgh suburbs. His wife, Niki, is a native, too.
“We grew up there, we loved it, and I think we’ll end up always living there,” Walker said.
His trip home coincides with the Stanley Cup finals. Walker’s siblings (and Kelly, who now plays for the Miami Marlins’ Class AAA team) share season tickets to Penguins games, in the corner at Consol Energy Center. Walker’s Penguins toiletry bag has a prominent place in his Mets locker — the logo always faces out — and he is friends with several of the Penguins players, including Kris Letang, Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis.
“He’s a huge, huge Penguins fan,” Kelly said. “Being from Pittsburgh, you don’t lose your roots.”