Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Almost-perfect pitcher taught Ace a lot

Two minor leaguers had much in common

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There was a time -- before one man was unwillingly cast as the tragic lead in a baseball opera played out before the entire world -- when you were as likely to recognize the name Armando Galarraga as Ace Walker. Which is to say not likely at all -- and not so long ago.

All that changed forever this week, of course. Because while Walker still is, and probably always will be, not much more professionally than a very fine pitcher with the Northern League's Winnipeg Goldeyes, his former roommate, Galarraga, will now forever be known as the man denied what would have been just the 21st perfect game in major league history by an inexplicably bad call on the penultimate out of the game in Detroit Wednesday night.

It was the sort of high tragicomedy that transcends sport and by Thursday morning even people who'd never before picked up a sports section in their life had an opinion on the umpire, Jim Joyce, who first blew Galarraga's perfect game with a terrible call and then gave us all a life lesson by immediately -- and without qualification -- owning up to the error.

Watching it all on a clubhouse TV in an obscure minor league park in Gary, Ind., was Walker, who that same night had pitched a pretty good game of his own at U.S. Steel yard, earning the win in an 8-3 Goldeyes victory over the Gary SouthShore RailCats.

Walker immediately recognized the man in the TV highlight, a man with whom he'd shared a season, a life and an apartment in Frisco, Texas in 2006.

"That smile he got on his face after the ump called the runner safe -- that look that just sort of said, 'You can't be serious?' -- that's Armando exactly," says Walker. "He's just not the kind of guy who was going to cause a scene, even in those circumstances."

Walker would know, having lived through a season of adversity with Galarraga. It was the summer of 2006 and Galarraga was a pitching prospect in the Texas Rangers double-A organization in Frisco, nursing an arm injury for much of the season and struggling his way to a 1-6 record and a bloated 5.49 ERA.

His roommate that season was Walker, who'd been fast-tracked to AA-ball after just one season as a pro and was also trying to find some traction in his young career

It's said that in the minors, 'You're either a prospect or you're suspect.' Galarraga was the superior prospect that 2006 season, even with the injury and the bloated numbers -- "You just knew he was going to be something special once he got healthy," says Walker -- but it would be unfair to say that Walker was suspect. Walker would actually win more games than Galarraga that season -- he'd go 4-4 -- and there was a sense that summer that Texas was going to give both of their AA pitching prospects every chance to succeed.

All of which is to say that just four years ago, before a fork in the road took Galarraga on a path to immortality and Walker on a path to obscurity, there was not much to separate the two men.

They ate together, they stayed up late talking, they made the five-minute trip from their apartment to the ballpark and back.

It was to be a defining year for both men -- as the bubble of Double-A baseball often is. Those who go on to succeed, like Galarraga, move on to Triple-A and ultimately the Majors. And the rest, the silent majority like Walker, hit an invisible baseball wall, languishing until they are toe-tagged -- again like Walker -- as a career minor leaguer.

Last year's Northern League pitcher of the year, Walker, still just 27, couldn't even get a tryout with a major league organization's farm team this summer and finds himself back in Winnipeg mostly because he has run out of other places to play.

It's an experience that could leave a man embittered. But just as Galarraga gracefully accepted Joyce's apology Wednesday night, Walker says he does not begrudge or envy his former roommate's success.

On the contrary, he's grateful for having known him.

"Armando really taught me how to be a professional ballplayer," Walker recalls. "He taught me how to handle myself on the field, even how to tip. I learned a lot from him that season."

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Fish 6 Flyers 4

 

The Winnipeg Goldeyes pounded out six runs on 11 hits -- including a 3-for-4 night at the plate by red-hot shortstop Wes Long -- to defeat the cellar-dwelling Schaumburg Flyers 6-4 Friday night before a crowd of 6,058 at Canwest Park.

Long, who was riding a seven-game hitting streak and hitting .364 coming into the game, also scored a pair of runs as the Goldeyes got at least a hit from every man in their lineup except second baseman Josh Asanovich.

Fish starter Antony Bello got credit for the victory, scattering four hits over five innings, giving up two runs while striking out two and walking one. Reliever Stephen Flake went the rest of the way.

The Flyers unofficially played the game under their newly adopted name, the Schaumburg Pilots.

Schaumburg is a suburb of Chicago and the franchise 'changed' its nickname last week to support the Chicago Blackhawks, who are currently playing Schaumburg's NHL namesake, the Philadelphia Flyers, in the Stanley Cup final.

The club is still wearing their uniforms with 'Flyers' emblazoned on the chest, but the team is calling itself the 'Pilots; and sending notices under a new masthead.

They may want to keep the new name -- Schaumburg was playing .500 baseball until last night since changing the name, after an awful 1-6 to open the season.

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 5, 2010 D3

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