Walker’s faith is paramount in his career

So many people say they cannot afford the time to attend religious services on weekends. There’s always an excuse.

Busy schedules with errands, chores, birthday parties and basketball practices usually seem to take precedent over the hour, or so, it takes to spend some time in a church.

To those of you are busy each Saturday and Sunday and still make time to attend church, well, religiously, you are commended.

Neil Walker does, too.

A Major League Baseball player typically spends upwards of 10 hours a day at the ballpark. For a 7 p.m. game, players must report to the clubhouse by 4 p.m. However, the whole 25-man roster usually arrives by 2 p.m. to get some extra exercise, take extended batting practice and review the many new-age statistics that are used to define players.

Sometimes, there are other commitments that need to be attended to, like autograph signings and interviews with reporters.

For a professional ballplayer to find the time to attend religious services each week, it’s no easy task.

Unless you’re a Pittsburgh Pirate.

Thanks to efforts by play-by-play broadcaster Greg Brown and Walker, himself, the Pirates began offering Catholic Mass at PNC Park prior to home games on Saturdays, at either noon, 2 p.m. or 4 p.m., depending on first pitch time.

“There’s not a lot of quiet time in the clubhouse, with your teammates, coaches, trainers and media always there,” said Walker, who was recently traded to the New York Mets. “You need some time to get away and Mass on Saturday was always my time to get away. The priests were so gracious to come down and spend time with us.”

There are three priests in the Diocese of Pittsburgh who rotate as celebrant of the PNC Park Masses, which are open to the visiting teams, as well, along with front office and gameday employees. One of the team’s chaplains, the Rev. Bill Schwartz of Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Beaver, Pa., was a guest at the 49th annual Baron Club Dinner at Franciscan University on Friday. Walker was one of the keynote speakers.

“I’m so sad to see him go,” Schwartz said. “Nobody represented the Pirates better than Neil did. On and off the field, he handled himself with dignity and class, and that is so rare in today’s society, let alone with professional athletes.”

Walker attributes his devotedness to his faith to his family. His father, Tom, was in attendance at the Baron Club Dinner, too.

“We practiced Catholicism in my family,” Walker said. “I went to a Catholic grade school growing up and learned a lot about my religion that way. I think the foundation of growing up in a household like that allowed me to learn values of commitment, trust and belief. I think all those things kind of go hand-in-hand with being a Christian and being Catholic.”

In the offseason, Walker still resides in his hometown of Gibsonia, Pa., about 10 miles north of Pittsburgh. There, he regularly attends Mass at St. Alphonsus Church.

“It helped me grow up faster,” Walker said, referring to his strong religious beliefs. “You get into a professional baseball lifestyle and if you don’t have those values put in place before you get there, I think it’s easier to go astray.

“As you move up the ranks in baseball, there’s more and more distractions that can pull you away from your beliefs. There’s so many different paths you can take in your life. I was very fortunate to have people such as my dad, mom, and older brothers and a sister, that any time I got out of my lane, they were good enough to put me back in my place.”

Walker demonstrated exactly what kind of person he is by honoring his commitment of speaking at the Baron Club Dinner. He was traded by the Pirates on Dec. 9 and could have easily forgotten about the event in Steubenville and started to prepare for his new life in New York.

“I knew about this event for several years, actually,” Walker said. “I committed to it and was excited about it. I knew there were other Pirate personnel coming (members of the broadcasting crew), so I was really looking forward to this.”

Just like members of the community were looking forward to seeing him.

There were more than 500 people in attendance for the event, one of the best crowds in recent memory.

As Walker shook hands, posed for pictures and signed autographs for nearly everybody at Finnegan Fieldhouse, he listened to many well-wishes and shared his own memories of being a Pirate.

“The opportunity I was given to be drafted by the Pirates, work my way up, be a part of some losing baseball, then turning that around as a team is something I take a lot of pride in,” Walker said. “Those memories will never change for me. Obviously, the business end of baseball can be brutal at times. This is one of those examples of things not quite working out the way you expect it to.”

This time, Walker didn’t choose his path. New York can seem like it is a world away from Pittsburgh, but with the way he lives his life, Walker will still be the right kind of guy to root for, even when he’s wearing orange and blue.

(Peaslee is a sports writer for the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times. He can be contacted at mpeaslee@heraldstaronline.com and followed on Twitter at @thempeas)


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