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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Interview Part 1: Bruce Walton, That Walk

Iowa Cubs pitching coach Bruce Walton, right, watches a side session before a game in August 2014 at Principal Park in Des Moines. (G21D Photo)
Part 1: That Walk | Part 2: Was His
Part 3: Simple Plan

DES MOINES, IA - The travel time from Tacoma to New York City is about five and a half hours by air.

Bruce Walton took that flight in May 1991. He recalled it seeming like it took only 30 minutes.

That's because Walton was headed to New York for what was expected to be his major league debut in the Bronx for the visiting Oakland Athletics.

"When that call up came, it was very rewarding," Walton told The Greatest 21 Days recently. "All the sacrifices you make and all the hard work you put into the game, it finally paid off."

"Because," he added, "that walk from the bullpen to the mound in Yankee Stadium was unbelievable."

Walton made that major league debut in his seventh season as a pro. He ultimately saw time in four big league seasons.

From there, Walton soon returned to the majors as a coach for the Blue Jays for a decade. He got there first as a bullpen coach. He then became the head pitching coach.

Walton spoke to The Greatest 21 Days recently Principal Park in Des Moines, Iowa, where he is serving for 2014 as pitching coach of the AAA Iowa Cubs.
Iowa Cubs pitching coach Bruce Walton, left, watches hurler Dan Straily throw a side session before a game at Principal Park in Des Moines in August 2014. (G21D Photo)
Walton covered his life in baseball, from his youth in Bakersfield, Ca., to college in Hawaii and to the pros. Once there, he had to show he could pitch at the highest level while throwing a fastball that didn't blow people away. He got there through control.

He also spoke of his long wait to make the majors, spending parts of three seasons at AAA before he finally got his call. He then started a major league career that saw him get called up when needed and sent down when he wasn't. He'd be sent down whether he pitched well or not.

He then told of his move into coaching, a new career that quickly got him back to the bigs.

Walton grew up in Bakersfield the son of parents who both played sports. His father played baseball. His mother played softball.

"They actually signed me up at 6 years old to play in a 7-year-old league," Walton recalled. "So they kind of got the ball rolling early."

Walton played well early on, but it wasn't until high school that he realized he was a little better than the other players. He could throw the ball harder than everyone else and he was striking people out.

By his junior year, the scouts started showing up. The scouts came from the pro ranks, as well as colleges.

Iowa Cubs pitching coach Bruce Walton congratulates pitcher Dan Straily on a good side session before a game in August 2014. (G21D Photo)

"Obviously it was really cool, somebody paying attention to you doing something you really like to do," Walton said. "All of a sudden, when you're going into your senior year and there's scouts back there, it puts a little more pressure on you."

He also started to think that maybe he could play as a pro, or take his game to a four-year college. "That was so exciting," Walton said.

Walton ended up having the option to do both. Playing in a prospect league in Van Nuys, Walton caught the eye of the coaches at the University of Hawaii. They were following him closely, they told him.

In the draft, it was the Cardinals who came calling, taking Walton in the 10th round. Given the choice, Walton chose college.

It was a decision his parents helped him make.

"They felt that I needed a little more seasoning and they felt college was the next step," Walton said, "you know, 'Son, go to college and if pro ball is there, then go to pro ball.'"

Around his junior year at Hawaii, Walton recalled thinking he really wanted to make a career out of baseball.

The scouts were back in the stands and Walton recalled trying to impress them all.  He ended up impressing the Athletics enough to take him in the 16th round of the 1985 draft.
Iowa Cubs pitching coach Bruce Walton, right side, talks to his pitchers before an August 2014 game at Principal Park in Des Moines. (G21D Photo)
"The day I got to sign that contract with the Oakland A's," Walton said, "is one of the better days of my life because now I know I have the opportunity to show the Oakland A's I could pitch in the big leagues."

Walton started with the Athletics at rookie Pocatello. He made single-A Madison and Modesto in 1986 and then AA Huntsville for half of 1987.

Walton recalled his experience in college helping him in those early years in the minors. He had more experience and he seemed to be able to move up faster.

He first made AAA Tacoma in 1989. He then returned there for 1990 and to start 1991.

All along, Walton had to prove that he could pitch and pitch well. That's because his speed wasn't as fast as others. But he could do something important, that's put the ball where he wanted it to go.

"I had to be really good," Walton said. "I had to learn how to use my fastball on both sides of the plate, put it on the corners, put it on the edges."

He had to be consistent with his breaking ball and throw it for strikes. He also had a good changeup.

"I really had to learn to pitch at a very young age," Walton said, "because I really couldn't just stand up there on the mound and blow guys away with my fastball. I learned that executing pitches was way more important than velocity just because I didn't have velocity."

Finally, in 1991, Walton took his fastball, however fast it was, to the majors.

Part 1: That Walk | Part 2: Was His
Part 3: Simple Plan

Go to Part 2: Bruce Walton, Was His

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