Archive for Sunday, May 9, 2004

Cubs easy pick for Walker

Infielder: Backup on winner beats starting for loser

May 9, 2004

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— Todd Walker's choice was tough, yet so simple.

After years of starting on bad teams, Walker finally made it to the playoffs last season with the Boston Red Sox.

Though he couldn't stay in Boston, he was hooked on winning. So he went for the next best thing, spurning offers of guaranteed playing time and more money to sign with the Chicago Cubs as a backup.

"Had I played on a losing team last year, I might have chosen differently this year," Walker said. "But having been through it, there is no alternative, really, if you have a choice to play for a team that's got a chance to win."

A month into the season, Walker -- and the Cubs -- couldn't be happier with his choice. He has played in all but two games because of an injury to starting second baseman Mark Grudzielanek, and his success at the plate has helped keep the Cubs near the top of the NL Central.

Walker is hitting .333 with a .429 on-base percentage in 20 games as Chicago's leadoff hitter, and batting .303 overall.

"It was to our benefit that we had Todd Walker here," Cubs manager Dusty Baker said. "Hey, that's a blessing right there in itself."

Walker hit .283 with 13 homers and a career-high 85 RBIs for Boston last year and was outstanding in the postseason, setting a Red Sox single-season record with five home runs in the AL playoffs. He had hoped to stay in Boston, but the Red Sox were looking for a better fielder who was less expensive.

Though he talked with the Cubs in early December, general manager Jim Hendry figured Walker would go elsewhere after Chicago re-signed Grudzielanek.

"I thought he'd get a place to play every day," Hendry said.

And there were a handful of offers. But just before Christmas, Walker told Hendry he wanted to play for the Cubs. On Dec. 23, he signed a $1.75 million, one-year contract.

"He showed me a lot by making the decision to come here for less money," Hendry said. "He made it real clear, and he lived up to his word, that he wanted to go somewhere and try to win and not worry about money."

Walker said all the right things when he arrived at spring training, acknowledging it would be an adjustment to come off the bench but welcoming the chance to play for a playoff contender. He and Grudzielanek developed a good relationship, too, with Walker making it clear he wasn't out for anyone's job.

Still, Walker knew it was going to be tough once the season began.

"I think everybody can relate. When you're sitting on the couch, a lot of times you don't want to get off the couch and go exercise. The more you sit, the more stagnant you get," he said. "And the reverse is true. Once you get moving, it's hard to stop.

"I chose to put myself in this position to be on a great team like the Cubs. That softens that blow pretty good."

And Walker didn't sit for long. Grudzielanek went on the disabled list April 10 because of a partial tear in his right Achilles' tendon, and there's still no timetable for his return. The Cubs also are without Mark Prior and Mike Remlinger, and they learned Thursday that shortstop Alex Gonzalez would miss six to eight weeks because of a broken bone in his right wrist.

This is the perfect example of why Baker always has a deep bench, and why players like Walker, Ramon Martinez and Todd Hollandsworth are invaluable to him.

"That's the difference I see in modern baseball between the higher-payroll teams and the lesser-payroll teams," Baker said. "They can't afford to carry a Todd Walker at that money, not knowing if he's going to play. Or carry a Paul Bako or a Hollandsworth or a Jose Macias or a Ramon Martinez."

When Grudzielanek is ready to come back, though, Walker knows he likely is headed for the bench. It won't be easy, especially after playing so well. But Walker knew that when he made the decision to sign with the Cubs.

And if they go as far as he thinks they can, it will be worth it.

"Had I not played in Boston, I might have made a different decision. But the Cubs are very similar," he said.

"If you win the World Series with either team, it couldn't be any better anywhere else."

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