Walkers first local family of youth baseball
On the day Neil Walker was drafted, young boys wore black Pirates T-shirts bearing his then-No. 24 to Consol Energy Park in Washington for what would be his final baseball game at Pine-Richland.
The shirts were one-time Pirates giveaways in honor of Brian Giles. Now the former All-Star outfielder's name was covered in tape and replaced by Walker's, handwritten in permanent marker.
The Pirates' selection of Walker No. 11 overall marked the first time in franchise history the team chose a WPIAL player in the first round and made June 7, 2004, an historic day for grassroots baseball in Western Pennsylvania.
A major turning point, however, occurred five years earlier.
That's when Walker played a pivotal role in changing the culture of youth baseball in the region. Prompted by his youngest son's promising potential, Tom Walker helped form an elite travel team, the Steel City Wildcats, to expedite the development of prospects. It became a blueprint for local kids to make it to Major League Baseball.
"I don't see myself as a catalyst," said Walker, the Pirates' starting second baseman. "I believe that our parents were opportunistic. They wanted better for us. My dad played and knew what it took for youths to go up the ladder.
"That's the thing I try to convey to kids, especially little kids starting out: If you're a good baseball player, you will be found. I do take pride in helping form that mentality here."
From personal experience as a player and parent, Tom Walker understood the risks and rewards that accompanied pulling his sons out of their community league in favor of travel teams.
Walker remembers youth baseball being "just lollipop" when he played in the late 1950s and early '60s, and encountered criticism when he tried to form travel teams for his older sons, Sean and Matt.
The Walkers, of course, aren't your ordinary family.
Tom played at Tampa (Fla.) Chamberlain High with future major leaguers Steve Garvey and Mike Eden, was a first-round pick of the Baltimore Orioles in the January 1968 supplemental draft and pitched six seasons in the majors. Sean and Matt Walker played Division I baseball, and Matt played in the Detroit Tigers' minor-league system.
When Neil was 13, Tom Walker determined that his youngest son needed to play against better competition. That's when he, Don Seymour and Jim Haak formed the Steel City Wildcats and, in conjunction with the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Allegheny Pirates fall-ball travel team.
"When you have to play against kids that are not at your level, it's hard to be challenged," Tom Walker said. "That's what's hard for these kids to process. You've got to find a challenge for them and get them to push themselves.
"My older sons, I knew they had talent, but Neil was a little different. There was something at another level with him. We decided either we develop a program or send him somewhere else to play. That's a challenge in itself for a parent, sending your kid away for the summer."
The Steel City Wildcats now play in the Western Pennsylvania Elite Baseball League, composed of the top players from the WPIAL. In five years, the league has produced 85 college players, many of whom hope to follow Neil Walker's path to the pros.
"I'm a big proponent of the fact that Neil's been a positive influence," Steel City Wildcats coach Mark Saghy said. "He's shown that you don't have to be from Texas, Florida or California to make it. The combination of the fact that Neil was a first-round pick, the local team taking the local kid and to come up and have success, you can follow him because he was with the Pirates, not the Detroit Tigers or Florida Marlins. And the fact that he did finally ascend to the major league level and have success has added to it tenfold."
Matt Bianco gives private instruction at his Bianco School of Baseball in Canonsburg, and also has the perspective of a parent whose son, Justin, passed on a scholarship to Pitt after he was drafted in the third round by the Arizona Diamondbacks in June. A former Peters Township standout, Justin Bianco spent the past two summers playing for the Steel City Wildcats.
"That's more the avenue that needs to happen," Matt Bianco said. "What Neil Walker did, everybody should do. If you're a high school player and you want to play better baseball in this area, the league that Neil Walker's dad created is still in existence."'