Walker learning from 'shadow' Maz
BRADENTON, Fla. — Bill Mazeroski knows great defense when he sees it. He should — he helped invent it.
Mazeroski still gets a lot of attention for hitting that ninth-inning home run in October 1960. But what got him into the Hall of Fame were the dazzling defensive skills — Maz won eight Gold Gloves — that made him one of the best second basemen of all time.
Last year, Neil Walker, a former catcher and third baseman, played only 21 games at second base at Triple-A before becoming the Pirates' everyday starter at that position. Sometimes, he clearly was learning on the job. Other times, Walker looked like a natural.
When asked to assess the rookie's performance, the old master did not hesitate.
"It was remarkable, what he did at second," Mazeroski said. "Neil did a great job. He's a darn good athlete, and it was fun to watch him."
This is Walker's first spring training as a full-time second baseman. Every morning during infield drills, Mazeroski, who's in camp as a special instructor, shadowed Walker on the field.
Walker would scoop up a ground ball, flip it to the shortstop, then talk it over with Maz.
Walker would snag a liner, fake a throw to first, then talk it over with Maz.
Walker would hustle to the bag, take a toss and make the pivot, then talk it over with Maz.
"It's pretty unbelievable that I'm getting the opportunity to work with Maz," Walker said. "He'll probably be sick of me by the time spring training's done."
Footwork has been the focus of their workouts. An experienced third baseman, Walker's already proven he's nimble. But second base requires a different kind of agility — more lateral moves and, most importantly, the ability to pivot at the bag under pressure.
"Neil did real well for never having done it before," said Mazeroski, who, in his prime, moved like Baryshnikov when turning a double play.
"He's going to be much better at it, I think, this year, just from the way he's taken to it in infield practice," Mazeroski said. "He's quickened it up a little bit. His arm's not as long. His feet are shorter. He's moving toward the ball, rather than moving toward first base. He's come a long way, so he's going to be all right."
It's not all just about movement. A slow-developing double play ball requires courage as much as quick feet.
"If you're not prepared to get out of the runner's way, you can pay for it big time," Walker said. "I learned that last year on the fly."
Maz's lessons for Walker are simple: Be quick. Be fluid. On double plays, get to the bag, get the ball and get rid of it.
"My ways aren't antiquated," Mazeroski said. "There's still fundamentals about catching the ball, getting rid of it quick and throwing it. It's still the same, and you've still got to do it.
"What we did in our day, they're still doing today."
Neil Walker's career defensive stats:
2B: 105 games, 104 starts, 894.2 innings, 463 chances, 222 putouts, 234 assists, 7 errors, 62 double plays, .985 fielding percentage
3B: 15 games, 13 starts, 109.2 innings, 37 chances, 10 putouts, 25 assists, 2 errors, 1 double play, .946 fielding percentage
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