Clay Overcash watched Brian Walker play third base for Tulsa Union High. After practice, he watched Walker help him with pitching lessons, catching bullpens for all ages.
Good hands. Good baseball brain. Hits left-handed. Average feet. That kid needed to catch. And he needed to coach when he finished catching.
“He did it with such ease, that's really what put it in my mind,” said Overcash, then Union’s pitching coach. “He had limited range at third base. His knowledge and understanding of the game as a whole made the game real easy.”
Overcash suggested the move before Walker’s senior season at Union, setting in motion a career that took Walker to Arizona State, Arkansas and Triple-A baseball as a player. He returned to Arkansas as a volunteer coach and Wichita State hired him this summer as a full-time assistant. While he will coach hitters and direct runners at third base, it is WSU catchers who appear to benefit most from his experience.
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Playing catcher launched the career of many coaches and managers. Catchers work with pitchers. They analyze hitters. They position infielders. It is the ideal spot for a baseball mind and that view from behind the plate seems to translate well to the dugout.
“Your eyes are trained to see more of the field than pretty much anybody else,” Overcash said.
It took little time for Walker to fall in love with running the game, working with pitchers and the constant demands of catching. Third base bored him.
“The mental side of it was just so much more fun than standing over there at third,” Walker said. “You’re not a coach, but you’re in charge of so much (at catcher).”
Walker, who will make $85,000 a year, spent four seasons in the Angels organization adding to his catching credentials. With former catcher Mike Scioscia leading the big-league club, that position is of prime importance throughout the minor leagues.
Walker said the Angels are known for their exacting standards with footwork, throwing and positioning. When he struggled catching pitches with late break in his first season, an instructor advised him to switch from the Rawlings 32 1/2-inch glove he used in college to a larger version. The Angels keep track of dropped balls, in addition to passed balls.
“I went to the biggest glove I could get, and it changed my receiving then on,” he said. “Their point was that the pitcher wants a big target, so the bigger the glove, the bigger the target. I didn’t know anything about the size of catcher’s glove. I thought they were all the same.”
Overcash, a regional scout for the Chicago White Sox, also saw Walker’s future in coaching. When he scouted in Arkansas, he and Walker spent hours at the Fairfield Inn in Springdale talking about the game.
New WSU coach Todd Butler coached Walker for two seasons at Arkansas and worked with him for three seasons as a coach. Their time together in the dugout, working in the nation’s most pressure-packed conference, convinced Butler that he wanted to mentor Walker as a coach.
“He’s fantastic on the field and he knows what I want done,” Butler said. “I trust him, and trust is probably the biggest word I can use for all of us working together.”
Butler sees his youth as an asset in giving players a different voice.
“They are going to get tired of me, at times, demanding, and I think Coach Walker will be able to walk in behind and keep them on the path of trying to improve every day,” Butler said.
Walker got his start coaching third base at Arkansas, an intimidating job for a volunteer assistant. Butler wanted to be in the dugout and coach Dave Van Horn replaced him with Walker. During Walker’s second season coaching at Arkansas, Van Horn approached him after batting practice before a doubleheader and asked if he was ready to coach third.
“My heart’s beating about 1,000 beats a minute, because that’s a pretty important spot,” Walker said. “It was a lot of pressure and I was waiting for the first guy to get thrown out.”
There is no position where trust is more important than in the third-base coaching box. Shocker fans are used to coach Gene Stephenson making those decisions. Butler wants to be in the dugout, where he can confer with pitching coach Brent Kemnitz.
“(Walker’s) coached third in the College World Series,” Butler said. “My desire is to be in the dugout and motivate and communicate and prepare guys for their next at-bats, or how we’re going to attack the next inning pitching.”
Late in his minor-league career, Walker chose the more stable life of college baseball over pushing toward the major leagues. He saw college baseball as a better lifestyle for his wife, McKenzi, and twins Joseph and Claire (4).
“Being a father and a husband, being there was more important than chasing my dream, my selfish dream,” he said. “If I would made it to the big leagues and played 10 years and never known my kids, that would have been a big regret.”