PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Neil Walker’s ties to Pittsburgh stretched far beyond his connection to the Pirates. He was born and raised in the Steel City, and when his hometown drafted him 11th overall in 2004, he never really left.
Walker’s baseball lineage even linked him to the great Roberto Clemente. Walker’s father, Tom, once played winter baseball with the Pirates great.
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“I don’t know if it’s completely set in yet, to be honest with you,” Walker said on Wednesday. “But I think come that first day of full workouts here, when I’m in full uniform and I’m looking around and I’m no longer in Bradenton . . . I think that’s when it’s going to set in.”
Walker, 30, will be tasked with replacing Daniel Murphy, the longtime Met and postseason hero who signed a free-agent deal with the Nationals. Like Murphy, Walker will be getting used to new surroundings, a reminder that baseball is indeed a business.
“It certainly hit me, especially being as close to the fire as I was in Pittsburgh, being from Pittsburgh, living in Pittsburgh, having such close ties,” Walker said. “But I’m really excited about this new chapter.”
Entering his final year of arbitration, rumors swirled this winter about the possibility of a Walker trade, a reality hastened by a salary that would grow too expensive for the Pirates. The Mets held similar reservations about Murphy, never showing interest in a multiyear deal they deemed too risky.
The solution came when the Mets traded lefty Jon Niese for Walker, who avoided arbitration by signing a one-year, $10.55-million deal. He is a free agent at season’s end, though in second-base prospect Dilson Herrera, the Mets have a successor in waiting.
Like Murphy, the switch-hitting Walker gives the Mets needed production at second base. But unlike Murphy, Walker brings a steadier and more experienced glove.
Walker hit .268 with 16 homers and 71 RBIs for the Pirates, who reached the one-game wild-card playoff for the third straight year. But he excels against righties, posting a .276/.337/.456 slash line last year.
With the Mets, Walker faces a learning curve. He’ll be working with a new double-play partner in shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera. But before that, he must pick up the simpler things, such as how to successfully get to the ballpark.
On Wednesday, he called his journey “an adventure.”
The game demands that its players focus on the short term. It was part of the reason that Walker — despite knowing that he could be traded — was stunned by the reality all the same.
“As a player you’re wired to go day-to-day,” he said. “You’re wired to not really worry about those types of situations. But you do understand that this game is a business. You’re naive to the point where you think that nothing is ever going to change I think in this sports. So when it does happen, there’s a little bit of shock value to it.”