For Walker, Northwoods League is the League to be in
Following the conclusion of his last final exam at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, Junior Erik Walker packed his bags for a summer of baseball. Summer collegiate coaches across the country were licking their chops to sign Walker to their respective teams following his phenomenal collegiate season in which he led his team in appearances (31), earned run average (1.86), and saves (12).
For the time being, Walker?s destination was Bourne, Massachusetts and the Cape Cod League after signing a ten-day contract.
The Bourne Braves were excited to have Walker and his lofty collegiate numbers joining their team. After Walker dominated opponents in his first and only appearance with the Braves, allowing no runs while striking out five and walking none in three innings of relief, UNC-Charlotte?s closer was packing his bags for a second time, this time traveling to Madison and the Northwoods League.
A deciding factor in Walker?s relocation was the advice of his good friends and collegiate teammates who already felt at home with the Mallards.
?I talked to Adam (Mills) and Kris (Rochelle) and they both said this is where I want to be,? Walker said. ?They said we have a great team, great coaches, and a great place to play, that was all I needed to hear for Madison to be sold to me.?
After his short-lived stint in the Cape, Walker left Massachusetts and drove to Wisconsin, eager to see the hype his collegiate teammates were talking about. As Walker arrived in Madison, he pulled into Warner Park and immediately knew Madison was the right place for him to spend his summer.
?Driving into the parking lot I was already happier than I was out East, once I walked past the front gate and saw this stadium, my eyes lit up and I thought, wow, those guys weren?t kidding,? Walker said. ?In the Cape it was like playing on high school fields.?
What about the audience?
?There (Cape) we were lucky to get 500 fans a game, here there are that many lined up outside just to get in the gates,? Walker said. ?As a baseball player, nothing gets you more pumped up than having thousands of screaming fans around. You feed off their energy.?
Feeding off the fans vigor is an understatement for Walker, who has yet to allow a run in 15 innings pitched with the Mallards. One can only credit Walker for his imposing numbers, striking out 23 batters while walking only seven and allowing a mere five hits the entire season; yet Walker gives all the credit to his teammates, coaches, and the league.
?Honestly, if it weren?t for my teammates at UNCC I probably wouldn?t be here. I?ve never been to Wisconsin before. But now that I?m here, I wouldn?t want to be anywhere else,? Walker said. ?From a player?s standpoint, the Northwoods League is at the top. The cities are great, the quality of competition is high, and the fans are awesome. Seeing 6,500 fans around is the best.?
Although the Cape Cod League has been putting teams on the field since 1885, and the Northwoods League is in only their 12th season of existence, fans are packing Northwoods League stadiums in bunches compared to the Cape, out drawing them by almost 700 fans per game through July 17th.
Take away Madison, the league?s largest draw with 5,238 fans per game, and the NWL is still topping the Cape by 372 fans per game.
?A lot of college coaches encourage their players to join the Cape just because of its history, but after playing both leagues and knowing players in both leagues, this league is just as good if not better,? Walker said of Northwoods League. ?Give this league a couple years, and I think both leagues will be on a level playing field.?
In the 2005 Major League Baseball amateur draft a record 73 NWL alumni were drafted, including 15 players selected in the first ten rounds.
While the Cape Cod League may have history, and illustrious alumni, players such as Walker feel the Northwoods League has unlimited potential. As the league grows, so will its players. The league, much like the Mallards, has taken a grass roots approach to improvment.
?The more people that play in this league, the better it will get,? Walker said referring to the young Northwoods League in comparison to the Cape Cod League. ?If players looking for summer ball talk to anyone who has experienced play in the NWL, more and more players will be looking for spots around the league.?
Like all athletes however, putting numbers and leagues aside, Walker only wants two things, to play; and to win.
?I just came here to help the team win,? Walker said.
Winning is all the Mallards have done since adding Walker to the team, going 15-4 since Walker?s debut on June 25th, a statement game for both Walker and the Mallards.
With the game tied at three in the fifth inning between the Mallards and then first-place Honkers, Walker worked around a leadoff double and had the Honkers batter down 0-2 with the go-ahead run on third when the game was temporarily delayed by rain.
After sitting for nearly an hour, many pitchers would have called it a day and let a fresh arm take over, not Walker.
The 6?4? right-hander stepped back on the mound and buckled the knees of the Honkers batter with a breaking ball on the first pitch after the delay. With a pump of the fist and a loud cheer from the dugout, a tone had been set for both Walker and the team.
The Mallards went on to win the game by the score of 4-3. The game proved to be a defining moment, as the Mallards won eight of their next ten games en route to a first-half championship.
Championships aside, after the 2005 summer collegiate season commences, all any player wants from summer collegiate baseball is a chance to shine.
?Everyone that puts on a uniform has one goal, to go pro. All any of us can hope for is to improve as both players and individuals and to make a name for ourselves,? Walker said. ?If nothing else, I?ve had the opportunity to make some great friends and had the best summer of baseball in my life.?