Walton gets win in year of loss After deaths of 2, injuries, home run small ray of light

Orioles Sidelight

September 14, 1997|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

Jerome Walton had started to wonder when he'd get rid of the zero, the one that mocked him from the home run column. The one that stood since Opening Day of last year, when he connected while pinch-hitting for the Atlanta Braves.

It took 306 regular-season games -- most of them played without Walton -- for him to erase the round number. Finally able to compete without any residual discomfort from the hamstring and groin injuries that have hounded him, the Orioles outfielder lined a two-strike breaking ball over the left-field fence in the fifth inning, providing the club's final run in a 6-1 victory over the New York Yankees at Camden Yards.

The homer was his second extra-base hit with the Orioles, and preceded an eighth-inning single off left-hander Kenny Rogers that completed a 2-for-4 afternoon.

"From what I went through, to come back and play well, to show people I can play, it's just a blessing for me to be out on the field," Walton said, speaking over the pulsating rhythms emanating from the speaker above his locker.

"I don't worry about the home runs and all that. I just try to go out and play hard."

He would settle for simply being able to play after getting into 37 games last year and appearing in his 18th of the season yesterday.

Since his Opening Day splash with the Braves, Walton has endured four surgeries, some false returns and the most severe pain of all -- the deaths of his father and stepsister within six months.

His eyes become moist as he speaks of the losses.

"I talked to my mom and she told me to just keep going and keep battling, and that's what I did," he said. "My wife and kids and my mom, that's all I have left."

Walton was accompanying the team to Florida after coming off the disabled list Sept. 1 when he learned that his stepsister had died during surgery. He flew home to Atlanta for the funeral, returning in the middle of a Sept. 4 game in New York and being used as a pinch hitter.

The games keep going on, no matter how much Walton is hurting. He's batting .378, giving the club more speed in the outfield and "just trying to get through these last months and not worry about things."

"I try not to think about stuff too much now," said Walton, whose father died of cancer in March. "Over the last few weeks, I've just been saying I'm going to go out and play hard and let everything else take care of itself."

Walton said he hasn't been this healthy since 1993, when he signed with California as a free agent and later was released from Triple-A Vancouver in August.

Since then, as so many times before, he's been unable to avoid the disabled list. There were the inflamed bunions on his right foot in 1994, and far more serious, a groin injury while with the Braves last year that led to the first operation and had the organization questioning his desire to play.

"Last year it really hurt to find out what they said. I knew, physically, I was hurt, and I wanted to play because I was in my hometown," Walton said. "My family was there and everything and that's the team I always wanted to play for. I wanted to say something to people, that they were wrong to say that, but I just put it behind me."

But he couldn't close the book on his injuries. He was placed on the DL April 25 with a strained left hamstring, then reinjured it while running before a May 23 game in Cleveland. He was transferred to the 60-day DL and since has gone under the knife to remove a calcium deposit in his groin and to repair the incision. Another season had come unglued.

"He keeps a lot of it to himself," said bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks. "He took it in stride and went about trying to get himself ready to play. He wanted to prove a lot of people wrong about him, but the injuries and other problems started piling up. Very rarely did he talk about wanting to do good this year, but occasionally, you could hear it come out. You could sense and feel the bitterness."

Walton grew close to outfielder Eric Davis during spring training, sensing a bond with a player who also had fought to overcome injuries through his career.

"It's been real difficult for him because he knows he can play," Davis said. "It's almost like the things I went through. You know you can play, but something keeps preventing you from doing that. Seeing him coming back and battling just like I've done is an inspiration to all of us."

Hits and misses

On the field: Mike Mussina still had his shutout with one out in the ninth when Chad Curtis sent a liner to center. Jeffrey Hammonds raced in and made the diving catch, keeping runners on first and second. But Paul O'Neill blooped an RBI single down the left-field line, scoring the Yankees' only run.

In the dugout: Manager Davey Johnson gave Brady Anderson another day off, starting Hammonds and Jerome Walton against Yankees left-hander Kenny Rogers.

In the clubhouse: "It tells the Yankees we're still here. We're not going away." -- Johnson, on yesterday's victory.

Pub Date: 9/14/97

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