MIAMI — For most of his adult life, Neil Walker existed as a living, breathing anachronism, a hometown kid making good in his own backyard. For 11 seasons, he stood in stark relief against the mercenaries who represent the norm in professional sports, his black and gold Pirates uniform a reminder of a charmed existence.
So when that changed this past offseason with a trade to the Mets, he needed time to process the end of an era. “I felt a bit slighted,” said Walker, who returns to Pittsburgh on Monday for the first time as a Met. “I thought, ‘Wow, they don’t want me around here anymore.’ ”
But Walker insists that when he arrives at PNC Park — where the Mets will face the other piece in the trade, Jon Niese — he will do so with no ill will or regrets.
“The real heavy emotions were the first three weeks, four weeks,” said Walker, whose .279 average and 13 homers have been a savior for the Mets. “I didn’t ever experience anger with anyone. A little bit slighted? Sure. But when that got through, I was like this is an unbelievable opportunity. I just want to make sure I’m prepared to come here and help this team win.”
By the end of his tenure in Pittsburgh, Walker’s DNA had been intertwined with that of the Pirates. His father, Tom, played winter ball with Pirates great Roberto Clemente. His goal as a child was to become the Pirates’ next great switch hitter. His template: Bobby Bonilla.
The Pirates drafted Walker in the first round in 2004. He broke in five years later and emerged as one of the steadiest second basemen in baseball. He was equal parts ambassador and ballplayer, his hometown roots anchoring him to work in the community.
When the Pirates ended a run of 20 straight losing seasons, he felt the thrill of it all not just as a player but as a fan. But he knew the good times would end. He was well aware of the franchise’s small-market limitations, and his price tag was climbing.
Given that he was 30, was a year removed from free agency and had experienced a few skirmishes in arbitration, a trade was inevitable. But when it came in December, it nonetheless rocked his foundation.
“It’s hard to say I feel like I deserve the Andrew McCutchen treatment because Andrew is a better player than I am, you know what I mean?” said Walker, who was underwhelmed by the Pirates’ offers of a long-term extension. “So I don’t feel disrespected, but I certainly felt like I wish we could have had a little bit more legitimate conversation when it was time.”
On the same day he was traded, he learned that his wife would be giving birth to the couple’s first child. They had just completed building a new house in a suburb north of the city.
His 94-year-old grandfather relished day trips from his nursing home to watch him play live — jaunts that came to an end when Walker was traded to New York.
But this week, Walker’s grandfather will be among more than 50 family and friends who will filter through PNC Park for a three-day reunion.
“Even if I was greeted with 25,000 boos or whatever, I still feel like I gave everything I had to give to the organization, to the city, to the team,” he said. “When you feel that way, you can live with whatever it is that happens.”