Ever since the Pittsburgh Pirates took local high school star Neil Walker in the first round of the 2004 draft, he's been dreaming about returning home and playing at PNC Park.
Thanks to the organizers of the 2006 XM Satellite Radio All-Star Futures Game, it's going to happen a couple of years sooner than he thought. The Pirates catching prospect was named to the U.S. Team for the eighth Futures Game, which will take place at PNC Park on All-Star Sunday, July 9, at 4 p.m. ET.
Because of the hometown angle, Walker not only knows he'll be more than just a member of the team, he's embracing the role he's sure to be playing as the local ambassador for the Minor League prospect showcase.
"It will be fun," said Walker, who may come in a day ahead of his fellow Future Gamers to get a head start on the promotional end of his visit. "I'm sure a lot of people will want to talk to me. I enjoy that stuff. It doesn't bother me.
"I'm looking forward to it. I'm sure by the third or fourth hour of answering questions, I'll get a little tired. But I don't have a problem with it. It comes with the job description."
His job description also will include hosting all the first-timers visiting the city he knows so well. He's looking forward to dispelling some misconceptions about the Burgh during his time at home.
"When you talk to people from different areas, they think of Pittsburgh as a grimy steel town," Walker joked. "It's more of a small big town. The stadium is top notch, and they have a great setup. I think everyone is going to be impressed with the show the Pirates and the city of Pittsburgh will put on."
It shouldn't be forgotten that aside from being this year's unofficial spokesman, Walker is a pretty good catching prospect. He wasn't named to this team because he's good with a mic in his face. Just 20 years old, Walker hit .301 with 12 homers and 68 RBIs in 2005 in his first full season with Hickory in the South Atlantic League, then headed to Arizona as one of the youngest players in the elite Arizona Fall League.
Walker hit his first real roadblock this year. Offseason wrist surgery was slow to heal, and he didn't make his 2006 debut with Lynchburg of the Carolina League until May 14. While he began the year thinking about the possibility of coming home for the Futures Game, he initially feared the injury would preclude him from making the trip.
"It obviously was in the back of my mind when the season started," Walker said." When I got hurt, I was a little bummed. With the injury, I thought there'd be a chance they wouldn't want me to go. I'm really excited to go and play in this game and go back home for a couple of days."
Walker has yet to find his stride offensively this year, hitting .256 over his first 32 games with one homer and 14 RBIs. The switch-hitter is the first to admit he hasn't quite found his rhythm from both sides of the plate. He does seem to be thriving behind it, making large strides with his defense. Talk of him needing to switch positions down the road, particularly after his 23 passed balls in 2005, may soon die down. In some ways, the injury may have been the best thing for his defensive game.
"The only thing he could do while he was hurt was sit and watch," Pirates Minor League field coordinator Jeff Banister said. "You have some self-serving thoughts when you have to watch other guys do it. I know Neil has been a guy who, as young as he is, is a student of the game. He pays attention to other players. He's been able to take all of that and put it into his own work.
"The biggest part of it is, the athleticism Neil has is beginning to show behind the plate," Banister added.
Said Walker, "I feel the time I did have in Spring Training, I did get to work on my catching. I couldn't work as much on my hitting as my catching and I really take pride in that."
He recently got charged with his first passed ball of the season, tangible proof of his improvement with the glove. It's given him some solace as he waits for his bat -- the real tool that will carry him to PNC Park for more than just the Futures Game -- to come around. It's also helped him deal with the frustrations of not being able to find the approach that enabled him to hit .292 in his relatively brief professional career heading into this season.
"I've caught better than I ever have in my entire life," Walker said. "I'm happy with that. If I'm not hitting, I'm catching well, and that's keeping me up. I've prided myself on being consistent, and I'm real close to doing that. I'm working on getting back to where I think I play my best."
He has shown signs of regaining that form lately, and he may be timing it perfectly to put on a show in front of the home crowd. Even if that doesn't happen, it'll be hard for Walker not to stand out at the Futures Game and during his All-Star Weekend experience. He'll be the one smiling non-stop.
"I'm excited to play in front of my friends and family against the best competition in the world," Walker said. "It's definitely in the top two or three in terms of events [in my career]. Being drafted in the first round has to be No. 1; going to this has to be No. 2 or 3.
"When I saw the All-Star Game was in Pittsburgh, I thought maybe I could play in the Futures Game. This is the most excited I've been about something in a long time."