Going home: longtime 2B Neil Walker retires with no regrets

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PITTSBURGH — Neil Walker spent his childhood watching the Pittsburgh Pirates struggle. He spent his 20s helping the franchise escape two decades worth of futility and a portion of his 30s working in the exacting crucible of New York City.

Asking any more from baseball seemed greedy.

The longtime major league second baseman said Wednesday he was retiring, ending a 12-year career that saw him become an integral part of the group that returned his hometown Pirates to the playoffs and reach the post-season with both the Mets and Yankees.

The 35-year-old spent 2020 with Philadelphia before being released last September. He spent the off-season staying in baseball shape. About four weeks ago it became obvious an opportunity to keep going wasn't going to immediately materialize. So rather than hold on, he decided to move on.

“I’m going to try and catch up with my family, with my friends and do a lot of things I haven’t been able to do for a long time, such as going on summer vacation and July 4 and go to Pirate games and have family events that you missed during the spring and summer,” Walker said Wednesday.

Walker hit .267 with 149 home runs and 609 RBIs in 1,306 games with six teams, the vast majority of them in Pittsburgh. The Pirates grabbed him with the 11th overall selection in the 2004 amateur draft and together Walker and centerfielder Andrew McCutchen became part of the core that eventually — and ultimately, briefly — lifted the franchise out of mediocrity.

Walker reached the majors in 2009 and recorded the final out when Pittsburgh won its 82nd game in 2013, ending a streak of 20 straight losing seasons. That year culminated with a playoff berth and a wild card victory over Cincinnati during a giddy night at PNC Park that felt something akin to an exorcism.

“Forget any individual accolade I may have had, Silver Slugger to whatever,” Walker said. “That moment, for me, was so prideful. I won’t forget one second of that entire game and that entire night, because I felt it. My family felt it. My friends felt it. My teammates felt it, and they finally understood what this city and this community, how passionate they are about their sports.”

The Pirates reached the playoffs three straight years from 2013-15. Yet with Walker in arbitration and nearing free agency, Pittsburgh dealt him to the Mets in December 2015 for pitcher Jon Niese. Walker understands the economics of baseball don't lend itself to storybook endings for players who aren't stars but perpetual grinders.

“As somebody who was drafted by this organization and came up to this organization, it would have been amazing to play my entire career for Pittsburgh,” he said. “But just kind of where baseball is and the economic things and the business end of it, it’s naive to think that. For 99.9% of players, just that’s just not the reality. So that was a harsh reality for me.”

One that included a bit of culture shock when he reached New York, where the player known in Western Pennsylvania as “The Pittsburgh Kid" became largely anonymous. He joked the majority of people who recognized him during his stay in New York were the doormen at his apartment building.

“To be honest with you, that was kind of nice," he said. “My role in Pittsburgh – and I relished the role – was to be the guy that understood that came involved with, not just Pirates baseball but Pittsburgh sports media and Pittsburgh sports, in general. Certainly, even going to bigger markets like the Mets and Yankees and the Phillies, my role was a little bit different in those places. It wasn’t as much an out-in-front leader; it was more of a behind-the-scenes type of leader.”

Walker — who captured the Silver Slugger in 2014 as the best offensive second baseman in the National League — played well for the Mets in 2016 when he hit .282 and tied a career-best with 23 home runs. New York sent him to Milwaukee, however, in August 2017 and Walker spent his final seasons in the big leagues playing on a series of one-year deals, the last with Philadelphia last summer.

Still, Walker says he has no regrets. And he holds no hard feelings toward the Pirates. He's open to joining the organization in some capacity, including perhaps a role as a broadcaster.

While he may no longer be on the field, Walker plans to remain around the game. He's in the process of helping build a baseball complex in the northern suburbs that would help make it easier for local high school prospects to earn the attention of scouts so they wouldn't have to do what he did and travel all over the U.S. trying to get someone to notice.

The Pirates did, starting a run that included 100-win seasons, 100-loss seasons and everything in between, a journey that he believes leaves him well prepared for whatever comes next.

“I have no regrets,” he said.

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Will Graves, The Associated Press