Minor League awards are not supposed to be given posthumously.
These honors are meant for up-and-coming players, young men just beginning to live their dreams. Erik Walker was in that place, a 23-year-old out of Charlotte who made his pro debut in the New York-Penn League. He was an All-Star for the Hudson Valley Renegades after being a 20th-round draft pick by the Devil Rays in 2006.
He hadn't been home for long before a tragic canoe accident in October cost Walker his life at the age of 23. His numbers -- 0.48 ERA, seven saves, six walks, 53 strikeouts, .141 batting average against in 37 2/3 innings pitched -- were more than impressive enough to earn him MiLB.com's 2006 Class A Short-Season Relief Pitcher of the Year award.
Much more impressive than his on-field peformance was how he carried himself off of it. As good a reliever as Walker was -- he left Charlotte as its career and single-season record-holder in saves -- he was an even better person.
"We came to know Erik as a young man who played baseball the same way he lived his life, full of enthusiasm, passion and joy," Devil Rays farm director Mitch Lukevics said after Walker's death. "He was a good player, a good person and a great teammate.
"He was exactly the kind of individual we would want wearing our Major League uniform."
While wearing the Hudson Valley uniform, Walker was virtually unhittable. He didn't allow his first professional base hit until his third outing and didn't yield a run until appearance number eight. He was scored upon just twice more after that, as he gave up just 18 hits all season and didn't serve up a single home run.
In his first four outings, Walker picked up two wins and two saves. He pitched a scoreless inning in the New York-Penn League All-Star Game in Aberdeen. His best outing, however, may have come on July 18 when the usually short reliever tossed 4 2/3 innings of hitless ball to get his third win. That was typical of what kind of player he was at every level, willing to do whatever anyone asked of him to help the team win.
"Erik was a true professional," Hudson Valley general manager Dave Burke said. "He was a team player, well liked in the clubhouse. More importantly, he was an outstanding individual. He always gave time for the fans or anyone else who needed it. He was a true asset to life."
"We're not guaranteed tomorrow," Walker's college coach Loren Hibbs said. "Erik lived every single day to the best of his ability."
That ability got him to the professional ranks where he excelled for all too short of a period of time. This award could have been the first of many for Walker, the kind of player who loved proving doubters wrong.
"He knew his situation as a high pick," said Devil Rays scout Brad Matthews, who signed Walker. "He said, 'I'm going to have to go out there and do well or they're not going to keep me around.' Then he went out and did it.
"He was the definition of that guy who just wanted the opportunity to play and have the chance to prove himself."