Thursday, October 15, 2015

Thursday Throwback - Jerome Walton

(This column used to be called Random Ex-Brave.)

Jerome Walton is the Bush of ball players.

I'll explain.

In 1994, Bush released Sixteen Stone. It spawned hits like "Everything Zen," "Comedown," and "Glycerine." The latter became Bush's most iconic song. It was certified platinum six times and just like that, Bush was one of the biggest bands in the world. However, subsequent follow-ups never quite made a similar impression. Razorblade Suitcase, released two years later, sold about half as many records while 1999's The Science of Things was certified platinum just once. None of their other three albums even reached those sales. Outside of "The Sound of Winter" in 2011, the last Top 5 hit on the US Alternative Rock charts came in 2000.

Bruce Bennett | Getty
In 1989, Jerome Walton came on the scene as yet another young player to lead the Don Zimmer era Cubs to new heights. Mark Grace was 25, Shawon Dunston was 26, Dwight Smith was 25, and the 23 year-old Greg Maddux led a strong rotation. It was a great group of young talent, that went to the NLCS that year before losing to the Giants in five, paving the way for the Earthquake Series with the A's. Walton was a big reason why. Replacing a series of under-performing players in center field from 1988, Walton hit .293 with 24 steals over 116 games. He missed some action, but was instrumental in getting the Cubs to the plays after a 30-game hit streak starting on July 21. That day, the Cubs lost 4-3 to the Giants and were in third place in the NL East. When the streak ended on August 20, the Cubs had moved ahead of the Astros for the division lead. They would never lose the lead again and after the season, Walton finished 13th in the MVP vote and won the Rookie of the Year. Since 1947, only five Cubs have ever won the award. It was Walton's best year.

Born July 8, 1965 in Newnan, GA, Walton attended Enterprise-Ozark Community College in Alabama. The school has produced just one other major leaguer - Dana Williams. In the minors, Walton was a pretty exciting prospect and the year before breaking into the bigs, he hit .331 in AA with 42 steals. After winning the CF job in spring training, Walton was set and the Cubs got excited after a magical rookie season. As I said, Walton missed action in 1989. This would become fairly routine for the often-injured speedster.

In 1990, there was Walton at the top of the lineup to begin the year. He went 2-for-4 and scored a tying run in the first. His OPS stayed in the .680-.720 department for most of the season, though he lost 40 games to injury in mid-June. For the most part, Zimmer hit him leadoff and despite weaker numbers across the board, he did on-base .350, though he only swiped 14 bases. It would be his last full-time season. While Walton played a lot in 1991, he was used as a defensive replacement for the weaker fielding, but better hitting alternatives (Doug Dascenzo and Chico Walker). He finished the year with a disappointing .219 average and a .604 OPS.

New manager Jim Lefebvre settled on a pre-roids Sammy Sosa as his everyday CF in 1992, though Sosa's struggles opened the position up for competition. Not for Walton, though. It was Dascenzo who stepped up. It didn't help that Walton missed the beginning of the year due to injury and by June 18, with a slash of .127/.273/.164, the Cubs disabled Walton for the remainder of the season before non-tendering him. In four years, the 1989 Rookie of the Year hit .258 with 12 HR and 46 steals - numbers that look a lot worse if you take out his magical rookie year and hit streak.

Walton went out west and signed with the California Angels, as they were known as. He played mostly in AAA and hit .313 there, but only a five-game look in the bigs before being cut. Walton's days as a starter were over, but he had a nice five-year run starting in 1994, though he could never stay healthy long enough to enjoy it. He was a rarely used sub for the '94 Reds, but he hit .309 in 46 games. Still, it was difficult to find playing time behind Kevin Mitchell and Reggie Sanders in the corners and Roberto Kelly/Deion Sanders in center field. The Reds also had Jacob Brumfield, who hit .311. The following season saw Walton return to the Reds and Ron Gant replace Mitchell in left field for the strike-delayed 1995 campaign. Walton played all three outfield positions and even a few innings at first base, but only got 188 PA out of it. He made it count, hitting .290 with 8 of his career 25 homers along with his third and last year with double digit steals.

His 1995 season with the Reds made Walton an attractive option for the Braves. They had learned how nice it is having a deep bench the previous year with Walton's former teammate Dwight Smith and later additions Luis Polonia and Mike Devereaux all playing key roles in getting the Braves to their only World Series title in Atlanta. Adding Walton with the returning Smith seemed like a no-brainer. Walton hit from the beginning. On opening day, Walton entered in a double switch to replace Ryan Klesko in left. In his first at-bat, he worked the count full against Chris Hook before hitting a homer. It would be helpful after Mark Wohlers battled control in the ninth and a 10-5 game got real close before the Braves eventually won 10-8.

Walton spent most of his time with the Braves as Klesko's caddy in left field. Of the 27 games in April, he played 21, but he only started twice. His job was to come in late and play defense. His offense was a bonus. He got five starts in May, but hit the DL at the end of the month and stayed there for the remainder of the season. His line as a Brave? .340/.389/.511. However, after his and David Justice's injuries, things shuffled in the outfield. Jermaine Dye filled in and the Braves shifted Chipper Jones to the corners to accommodate the, at that point, pretty bad Terry Pendleton.

In free agency, Walton signed with the Orioles, another contender looking to add depth. Walton didn't get through April before hitting the DL. However, unlike the previous season, he was able to return before the end of the year He even played in the playoffs, continuing a streak of 14 consecutive postseason at-bats without a hit since an RBI single in the Game 5 of the 1989 NLCS. For 1998, he headed south to join the inaugural Devil Rays. His season ended on May 6. Shocker.

For the next three seasons, Walton stayed around baseball. He went to Mexico to play for Campeche and also spent time in the Atlantic League with Somerset and Nashua. Two of his teammates for the latter were only notable because of who their brother was - Stephen Larkin and Bobby Bonds Jr. Walton also spent about a month in the Marlins system, but never got back to the majors. His career came to a close in 2001.

Since retiring, Walton has kept busy. He spent some time as an instructor with Home Plate in Peachtree, GA and also founded his own baseball academy called Centerfield Baseball Academy. It's a shame he wasn't able to stay healthy when he became a backup. The Braves could have used him in '96 as it turned out.

More Recent Throwbacks...
Blaine Boyer (2005-09)
Juan Berenguer (1991-92)
Charlie Morton (2008)
...or view ALL of them.

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