Walker glad to have Mazeroski on his side
Bucs' second baseman learning ropes from one of best
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Most mornings, as Neil Walker jogs to second base to take ground balls, he is trailed by greatness.
Following Walker and planting his feet just far enough behind second base not to get in the way is Bill Mazeroski, a bat in hand and wisdom waiting to be offered. Mazeroski doesn't carry any sign of his eight Gold Glove Awards with him. He's too humble to brag about such past honors.
But, Walker knows his Pirates history as well as anyone on the club. And as the 25-year-old Pittsburgh native strives to get more comfortable and competent at a position he just began playing a year ago, he can't imagine having a better tutor.
"Maz is probably the best second baseman of all time," Walker said. "It's very humbling having him around. He treats me like a son, and I appreciate everything he does for me. I'm going to listen to every single word he says. I'm guessing by the end of Spring Training he is going to be sick of me. That'll mean I got the most out of him."
Mazeroski laughed when told that Walker feared getting on his nerves. Impossible, the Hall of Famer added. At 74 years old, a man widely regarded as the best defensive second baseman to play the game wants nothing more than to help out an eager pupil.
"He comes and asks me what he needs to work on," Mazeroski said. "There are other guys who don't do that. You have to go after them. But he comes after you to get work, and that's good. You know he wants to learn and he's learning well."
"I look forward to him leading the league this year in double plays," Mazeroski answered. "He adapts that quick. He's a good athlete. It doesn't take much. So far this year, he's picked up everything. If he just keeps doing it for a while, he is going to be fine."
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For Walker, there is relief in simply knowing that he finally has the chance to focus his attention in one place. There's no more catching or transitioning to third base. There is no need to get work in the outfield and at first base. It's by no means the path that Walker envisioned, but second base appears to be solidly his in Pittsburgh for the foreseeable future.
Still, that alone is not good enough for Walker. He wants to excel.
"I know that by the end of Spring Training, the strides that I'm going to make are going to be very, very big," Walker said. "I'm learning on the fly, but I've got some great people around me to help out. I'll be much more prepared."
Along with Mazeroski, Walker is spending plenty of time with new third-base coach Nick Leyva, who has taken on duties as the team's primary infield instructor. Among the first technique issues Leyva wanted to address were Walker's double-play turns.
Standing 6-foot-3 in height, Walker doesn't have the body type of a typical second baseman. That makes it especially critical that he stays low and has quicker hands and feet when taking double-play feeds at the bag.
Leyva also wants Walker to be quicker moving to his right, though that won't be as much of a concern since Lyle Overbay will be positioned to cover more ground between first and second. Walker is also cleaning up his throwing motion. The goal is to shorten it up now that he doesn't need the same arm strength he did when positioned at third.
"These are little things that are so fixable, it's unbelievable," Leyva said, after running through the checklist. "There are some things that he does that have probably never been addressed, and it's my job to address them with him."
There is an expectation that Walker will show significant improvement in a short time. The job he did transitioning from catcher to third baseman was remarkable, to the point where two years after the position change Walker was widely considered the organization's best defensive third baseman.
He also held his own at the Major League level last year, despite only playing 21 games at the position before he arrived.
"It's truly remarkable what he did a year ago," general manager Neal Huntington said. "He's worked hard. He cares. He wants to be a good defensive second baseman. That's a big part of it. I cannot give enough credit to what Neil Walker did defensively last year. Now it's learning the finer elements of the position rather than learning the position."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.