Rookie scout Keronn Walker will be among baseball royalty Monday, when he represents the Cubs at the 2018 MLB First-Year Player Draft, joining his childhood idol, Hall of Famer Andre Dawson.
All 30 teams will have one or two representatives at the draft. The list of team reps includes three Hall of Famers, five MVPs and four Rookies of the Year. The White Sox will be represented by 2005 World Series stars A.J. Pierzynski and Aaron Rowand.
Lukas McKnight, the Cubs’ assistant scouting director, informed Walker of the honor.
“It’s an honor, especially being from my hometown of Chicago,” Walker said. “This is going to be a great experience.”
Walker’s baseball journey capsulizes Major League Baseball’s aim of introducing the game to communities of color.
Walker, 39, was hired by the Cubs last offseason. He caught the eye of an MLB executive at one of the league’s “Breakthrough Series” camps. That executive referred him to the Cubs, who had an opening after the death of veteran scout Stan Zielinski.
“After talking to me and learning about my baseball background, the academy I started and about my knowledge of the game, they felt like I’d bring some value to the scouting team,” Walker said.
Walker, who grew up in Hyde Park, was a 43rd-round pick by the Kansas City Royals in 1999. He played professionally for six seasons, ending his playing career in 2004 after a stint with the independent Windy City Thunderbolts. He also coached the varsity baseball team at the University of Chicago Lab school from 2006-2013.
During that time, Walker founded the B.I.G. Baseball Academy, a nonprofit organization that teaches the game to players ages 4 to adult. It stands for Best Instruction Guaranteed. Walker said what makes baseball different from other professions is the degree of difficulty involved.
“People don’t realize how hard the game is. Baseball, in general, is a ‘failure’ sport. If you can succeed three out of 10 times at anything else in life and be considered great at it, that’s pretty hard to come by,” Walker said. “If a doctor performs a surgery successfully three out of 10 times, that means seven people died, but if you get a hit three out of 10 at-bats, you’re a Hall of Fame candidate. We take for granted how good the players we see every day are.”
One of the intangibles Walker looks for in players is the ability to rebound after making a mental error at a crucial time.
“I like to see their makeup,” he said. “I like to see if they are a great teammate or not. Any scout knows if you’re looking for a player to perform at the major-league level, of course you have to add the skill set, but they need to be able to handle the ups and downs of the game.”
Many athletes from the black community who excelled at multiple sports — as Walker did in baseball and football — often pick football or basketball over baseball because of financial needs. Many college baseball programs offer only partial scholarships. Famously, White Sox Hall of Famer Frank Thomas played baseball at Auburn while on a football scholarship.
Baseball kept Walker centered while coping with his parents’ divorce. Walker’s mother, Ginni, a retired Chicago Public Schools teacher, was one of the founding members of the Hyde Park-Kenwood Little League.
“Baseball was a distraction for me,” he said. “I’d go to the park and play with my friends from sunup to sundown. There was nothing else. I just missed the video-game era. We only played video games when it was cold outside.”
Walker has a different take on how and why baseball seems to be unpopular in the black community. He believes it’s about year-round access to training.
“These kids can now have year-round training. In the past, they didn’t play when it was cold outside,” Walker said. “The kids who have access to baseball year-round aren’t necessarily better than city kids, they just have more reps.”
Black participation in the majors is trending upward, according to a USA TODAY report that said the number of black players on MLB rosters rose to 8.4 percent, the highest since 2012.
And the upward trend may have to do with year-round access to training facilities such as Walker’s and MLB’s Urban Youth Academy. MLB started the first Urban Youth Academy in Compton, California, in 2006. Cincinnati Reds pitching prospect Hunter Greene, an academy alum, was the second overall pick in last year’s draft.
Walker’s job is demanding, meaning he can’t always run the baseball academy he created. So Irene Martinez, a parent of one of the B.I.G. kids, helps him run day-to-day operations.
Walker’s baseball journey appears to adhere to the adage “lift as you climb,” popularized by activist Mary Church Terrell, a charter member of the NAACP. His mother was a catalyst in his baseball career. Now, he’s doing the same for his son Kade, a baseball player who is following in his footsteps at Bronzeville’s De La Salle Institute.
“The main reason I started the baseball academy was that I wanted my son to get the same instruction I did,” Walker said. “I didn’t realize that when Dad is coaching you, it sounds like ‘take our the trash, eat your vegetables.’ I’m making sure I’m treating him as fair as I’ve treated everyone else.”