Burlington, Vt. – When Concordia University Chicago’s Jack Walker was selected in the Major League Baseball draft last month, he joined a unique bunch of 19 players.
Did he join those players with multimillion-dollar signing bonuses, or the guys with super-agent Scott Boras representing them?
Of the 1,521 players drafted, Walker and just 18 others hailed from Division III colleges. Walker, taken in the 20th round, was the third D-III player drafted and the first position player. It gives him added motivation as he begins his quest to join another select club – the 800 men who play in the majors.
“I am honored to be part of that group and to represent that division – to keep representing Concordia and my family and the Division III name,” Walker said last month before his Class A minor league team played an Independence Day home game in this lakefront town, Vermont’s largest, located about 40 miles from the Canadian border.
As Walker was talking, sitting on a picnic table outside the Vermont Lake Monsters clubhouse, there were numerous reminders that he comes from humbler baseball roots than most of his teammates. Warming up in the bullpen was Jack McGeary, that day’s starting pitcher, on whom the Nationals showered a $1.8 million signing bonus to help dissuade him accepting a baseball scholarship at Stanford. In fact, Washington made the extraordinary move of paying for McGeary’s Stanford tuition, on the condition that he not play baseball there and would join the Nationals’ minor league system during summers.
It’s safe to say the Nationals aren’t making back payments on Walker’s Concordia bills.
But Walker said that once he gets between the foul lines, where signing bonuses and the number of scouts who attended the college or high school games no longer matter, he feels on even footing with most of his teammates.
“What I’ve learned is that everyone has a good solid foundation of fundamentals,” Walker said. “I’ve talked to a few guys from the Division I programs, and most of it seems pretty similar. Sure, they faced better competition, but I think coach Spiro [Lempesis, Concordia’s coach] did a good job of instilling fundamentals.”
His minor league coach, Jeff Garber, seems to agree that Walker has been adequately trained for the rigors of professional ball.
“First and foremost, he’s a baseball player,” Garber said of Walker. “He pays attention and he’s a quick learner. Whether I’m talking to him or to somebody else, he’s listening.”
Every minor league team is populated by young men not accustomed to failing on a baseball diamond. Garber said Walker is facing the first hints of failure better than most.
“He’s not panicking. He’s attacking it the right way – asking questions and listening,” he said. “He’s probably making the transition better than anybody on the team.”
The results on the field have been promising so far. Walker entered the July 4 contest with the third-best on-base percentage (.474) in the New York-Penn League, and was seventh in batting average (.355)–albeit through only 10 games. That was to go along with seven runs scored and seven RBIs.
“He’s progressing very nicely. Offensively, he gives us our best at-bats,” Garber said.
When Vermont started its season on June 19, it platooned a number of players to give everyone a chance to play. But by the end of June, Walker emerged as the everyday third baseman.
“He’s taken over that job,” Garber said. “We wouldn’t have stayed on a platoon forever, but the way he plays the game and the progress he’s made, he said, ‘It’s mine.'”
Walker has cooled off a bit since his hot start, his average dipping to .225 by press time (Sunday). The night the Wednesday Journal caught up to him, toward the beginning of the slide, Walker went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts and a fielding error.
But with 29 walks in 36 games, his on-base percentage is a whopping 178 points higher than his average, at .403. That’s good for second on the Lake Monsters, as are his totals in doubles (seven) and RBIs (15).
Concordia and Naperville North High School were Walker’s stops before Vermont. Walker got to know the area through Concordia’s baseball team’s reliance on the community to help fund the program. Entrance fees for Concordia’s children’s baseball camps help bolster the athletic budget, and last year the team held a fundraiser for its spring break games in Arizona and Hawaii.
“The Oak Park-River Forest area was really nice, receptive to fundraisers and a nice area to go to school,” Walker said. “It was similar to Naperville in that it had strong community.”
Walker excelled on the field for the Cougars, starting all four years and setting five school records – in games played (176), hits (235), runs scored (211), walks (135) and stolen bases (68).
The opportunity to play as a freshman was one reason Walker chose Concordia.
“Coach Spiro was honest with me and said I could come in and play right away as a freshman,” Walker said. “I liked the smaller school atmosphere, and I wanted to go somewhere I could learn and grow, but also play from the start.”
Was it a fluke that it was the Nationals who picked Walker? Not entirely. In 2007, Washington used a second round selection, No. 67 overall, on D-III product Jordan Zimmermann, a pitcher at Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
Zimmermann was rushed to the majors and has made 16 starts for the Nats this year.
Walker said he keeps tabs on D-III players on the Internet and was well aware of Zimmermann by the time he joined the Nationals.
“I definitely pull for everyone in the game,” Walker said, “but especially for a guy like that.”
He said the Nationals as an organization have emphasized the success of players who weren’t highly touted when they arrived in the system.
“The message is, ‘It doesn’t matter where you are or where you started. If you keep getting better, the sky’s the limit.'”