DENVER — Now and then, the ironic drifts into the surreal.
Such was the case Friday during batting practice at Coors Field. St. Louis outfielder Larry Walker stood resting his arm on Cardinals Vice President Bob Gebhard’s shoulder.
Both of them wore the same grin, as if they shared a secret.
Walker, who spent the better part of a decade with the Colorado Rockies, returned to his old yard for the first time since the team traded him early last month to save money. Gebhard, Colorado’s former general manager, was fired in 1999 to clear space for Dan O’Dowd.
Considering that St. Louis is coasting into October after winning 100 games while the Rockies stopped searching for .500 two months ago, it’s safe to assume neither Cardinal was complaining.
“When you go to St. Louis and you see the baseball-rich town that it is, you can’t help but get fired up,” Walker said. “I met Stan Musial the other day. He was in the clubhouse. Stuff like that.”
Walker didn’t walk away from the Rockies without a good push, however. Needing money to sign its younger players and seeing no reason for an aging superstar on a rebuilding franchise, the club tried to trade him twice before he finally waived his contractual right to stay.
Fans at the park Friday seemed to understand as much, giving Walker an inspired ovation during his first at-bat. The Rockies even found cause to honor him in a public presentation before the first pitch.
“I’m happy for him,” Rockies manager Clint Hurdle said. “I don’t think there are many situations in baseball better than the one he’s in right now.”
Upon landing in Denver, however, Walker couldn’t help but wonder what could have been. He still loves the city in which he owns several homes. He misses his wife and daughter, who haven’t yet followed him to the Midwest.
“That’s the Larry people don’t understand. He loved it here,” Rockies outfielder Mark Sweeney said. “If you would have told me three years ago he’d be wearing a Cardinals hat, I wouldn’t have believed it.
“It must have been hard for him to come back, especially wearing a gray uniform.”
Perhaps because of the strange atmosphere, Walker didn’t do much in the game. He finished 0-for-4 with two strikeouts and two weak grounders to first base before leaving the game after the eighth inning.
Rockies starter Jason Jennings said it was an honor to pitch to his old teammate.
“It was fun. I was pretty close to him when he was here, learned a lot from him, and I respect him a great deal as a player,” Jennings said. “It was nice to be able to finally face him in a live situation.”
Unlike his old teammates, however, Walker will not empty his locker in nine days and watch the postseason from a distance. He will, for just the second time in his 16-year career, test his skills in the autumn.
And that, as it was for Gebhard, was worth leaving home — even if he didn’t ask for it.
“I didn’t wear the Rockie uniform for as long as I did because I thought we were going to stink it up every year,” he said. “I wanted to win here, but it didn’t happen.”