Bowen Island kids don't often continue playing baseball but there is one islander who kept it up, and got so good that he's made the pros. Matt Walker started where other young Bowen players start, at Cypress Park.
For youth players, there are often enough members for an all-island team at Cypress but gradually kids drop out and those left get placed on off-island teams, which leads to more travel and dropping out. By high-school, some Bowen Islanders have joined the island fastpitch league but most have left the game.
But Walker kept working at his game through stops with the Thomson River University team, Toronto and in the California Winter League and Arizona Winter League. He's loved the journey and it's paid off he's pitching in the independent North American League for the Maui Na Koa Ikaika (the name translates to: Great Warriors of Maui).
Walker has an extremely positive outlook and expresses a lot of gratitude when he talks about not only being a professional, but doing it in, of all places, Hawaii.
"Honestly, being in Maui playing professional baseball is a blessing," he wrote in an email. "I am living life in the moment and soaking up every second, including surfing on some off days and mornings. I`m so grateful for this opportunity and I wouldn`t be here without the love and support of my parents, sisters, friends and teammates."
Signing with Hawaii came about after a strong performance playing winter ball in Arizona. Thanks to his work in the AWL, he was drafted by Maui and went to Hawaii to prove himself at a two-week tryout camp this spring. He not only made the club but earned a starting spot in the Na Koa Ikaika rotation.
How is he doing? Well, at this writing, Walker was 2-2 and leading the league in earned run average. For the uninitiated, the ERA is the averaged out number of earned runs a pitcher allows over the course of nine innings. Walker's ERA was 1.04 around the June, a number not often achieved in any league.
A coach in Walker's Cypress Park days, John Winter, said the now 24-year-old "always had a strong arm" but Walker doesn't rely on natural abilities. He works at the four pitches he's using, a two-seam fastball, a slider, change-up and curve, and said he's a "sponge" when it comes to learning from coaches and teammates. His goal is to go as far as his arm, and motivation, take him.
"Any time a baseball player is playing in an independent professional league, their goal is to sign with an MLB affiliated team and play in the minors," he said. "My focus is exactly that, I am constantly working to get better and noticed by an MLB team."
Mom Caroline, who runs the Bowen Flower Shop, and father, Brent, recently went to Hawaii, to see Walker pitch in a fully-professional league for the first time. Caroline is aware of the cut-throat nature of baseball and mixed in with the joy of watching him pitch in an exotic location were the nerves of wanting him to do well.
He didn't disappoint, pitching late into the game each time and in one game allowing only a single run in seven plus innings of work. "We were lucky enough to get to see a game on our first and last night there," she said. "To be honest I wasn't as nervous watching as I have been at some of his younger games; some university games and (games in) Toronto were quite nerve racking."
Generous by nature, Walker cites the coaches and ballplayers he competed with on Bowen and at Cypress as helping him improve at a game he insists you have to keep enjoying in order to excel at. "It was a blast playing with friends you grew up with, and I believe all my Bowen teammates were exceptional players," he told the Undercurrent last fall.
"We had the luxury of having coaches like Jack Brick, Bob Whiltshire, Rick Sinke and Bill Hoopes. All of them made baseball an enjoyable experience for the kids and I believe your childhood plays a factor in determining what to focus on when you're growing up."
Walker appreciated those guys he grew up playing with, islanders such as Derek Sinke, who himself has had a taste of elite baseball, Eric Ander, Jake Moir, Dylan Macintosh, Dave Hilborn and the Woodwards, Adam and Tom. He enjoys his teammates in Maui, too, and he's playing with a diverse bunch, not just Americans.
"I'm the only Canadian on the team and I definitely get the brunt of the razzing when it comes to 'EH' and Canadian jokes, but we're all very close and it's all in good fun," Matt reports. "We have two Venezuelans, six Hawaiians, and two Japanese players. It's incredible playing with players from all over the world and having local Maui players brings out great crowds, plus these guys can really play ball."
One of the Japanese players is making a name for herself. Yes, a she: Eri Yoshida. The 5'1" pitcher is a knuckleballer and has four wins, the record for wins by a woman in pro hardball. Walker says her English is improving but their conversations still include nodding and gestures. He says she's a great and hardworking teammate.
If you want to keep track of how Walker, and teammate Yoshida, are faring, there's a stats section on a sports website that includes their league. Got to pointstreak.com and click on baseball and under 'featured clients' and 'professional' click on the NABL icon.
Walker intends to work at keeping his name at the top of the pitching stats list. "Baseball is something I put my heart and soul into and I dream of playing at the Rogers Center for the Toronto Blue Jays, or down at Safe Co field for the Seattle Mariners," he said. "I believe with the right amount of confidence, work ethic, passion, and patience, it's a realistic dream to fulfill."
Regardless of where he goes in baseball, he's certain to keep loving the journey.