Mariners pitcher Taijuan Walker and his mother keep game in perspective
Taijuan Walker's mother, Nellie Garcia, was diagnosed with breast cancer last summer. But she is cancer-free now, and enjoying watching her son pitch in Arizona.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Taijuan Walker file
Age: 20 (turns 21 Aug. 13)
Height / weight: 6-4 / 210
Spring w/ M's: 1-0, 5.14 ERA
Status: Sent to minors camp
PEORIA, Ariz. — Watching from the stands as her son strikes out another major-leaguer is less nerve-wracking for Nellie Garcia than back in her Little League spectator days.
That son, 6-foot-4, 210-pound Mariners prospect Taijuan Walker, 20, had just sent slugger Jesus Montero back to his dugout with a called third strike Tuesday in a minor-league intrasquad game that had a handful of big-leaguers playing. Garcia clapped from the aluminum benches alongside the minor-league field, just as she did while attending almost every game her son played from Little League through high school.
"I think it's harder when they're in Little League," she said. "It gets so intense when they're that age. The players take everything so hard."
Things get intense when they're all grown up, too, as both Garcia and her ballplayer son found out last summer. Walker was in a stellar first season with the Class AA Jackson Generals and about a week away from appearing in the Futures Game when his mother — who had recently moved across the country to upstate New York — was diagnosed with fast-spreading Stage 3 breast cancer.
From that point, baseball took a back seat.
"It was pretty bad," Garcia said. "My tumor was what they called a rapidly growing tumor, so I was on some pretty harsh chemo. I was pretty out of it."
It was only eight weeks ago that Garcia completed the final round of treatment and her cancer was declared in total remission. She took a needed vacation, coming to Arizona to spend a month watching her son.
And that meant Walker could finally free his mind and focus on what he does best.
"Knowing she's cancer-free and healthier now, it makes everything a lot easier," Walker said. "And she's out here, so I can see how she is. It makes everything more fun, less stressful. I can go out there now and not worry. My family is home and safe."
Garcia, 38, had raised Walker, his sister and two brothers on her own as a teenage mother in Yucaipa, Calif., about 80 miles east of Los Angeles. She worked full-time as a process server, but would get to leave work early to attend her son's games, sometimes driving two hours each direction.
She raised her children to be independent and self-sufficient. They learned to cook their meals, do dishes and laundry and help themselves when she wasn't around.
There's a feisty side to the woman Walker calls "my best friend." Once, she had to serve legal papers on a Class AA pitcher in the Angels organization who'd failed to make child-support payments.
So, she grabbed a friend, went to watch a game where the pitcher was playing, then stood near the side of the field afterward and asked him to autograph her ticket. As he did so, she pulled out the legal papers and said, "Oh, wait, by the way, I have to give you these."
The pitcher was not happy.
"He got all mad at me," she said. "But I said, 'I don't know what to tell you, man. Pay your child support.' "
Garcia laughed as she told the story. She can laugh at a lot of things now, which wasn't the case for most of the past year, especially when she realized she'd misjudged how much independence she'd instilled in Walker growing up.
"He was trying to be strong for me," Garcia said. "But he took it pretty hard. I really didn't know how much it affected him until I talked to some friends when I made a trip back to California."
A former Little League coach of Walker's told Garcia how her son had phoned him, devastated, the day of his mother's diagnosis.
While Mariners fans were giddy over the daily progress last summer of Walker, Danny Hultzen and James Paxton — dubbed "The Big Three" of Mariners mound prospects — the pitcher admits there were days baseball was the last thing he cared about.
"The first day was the hardest," he said. "But I knew that I had to be strong. I couldn't be weak. She didn't want me to worry. She wanted me to go out there and still pitch ... so, I tried to be strong for her."
They talked every day by phone. They also set unofficial Twitter records for public mother-ballplayer tweeting, which fans following the two can still see daily.
Garcia saw Walker pitch in a handful of Cactus League outings before the Mariners sent him to minor-league camp last week. Given what the pair have been through, the demotion — largely expected given Walker's age — wasn't dwelled on for long.
Walker said his perspective on the game has changed.
"Oh, yeah," he said. "You never know. You never know when it's your time. Or when you're going to get diagnosed with cancer. Or anything, for that matter. So I just kind of live every day to the fullest and try not take it for granted. To be able to play baseball, it's a blessing."
And his mother figures it's a blessing to be here, whether Walker is facing big-leaguers in a packed stadium or throwing intrasquad on a side field.
Once the Mariners drafted Walker 43rd overall in 2010, her job prevented her from seeing him pitch in person. In fact, other than a brief Cactus League stint last spring, the Futures Game right after her diagnosis was the only time she'd seen him pitch as a pro.
She implored Walker to have fun in sports, and he was the one kid on his youth football team who never cursed or threw his helmet after a loss, happy to go get ice cream with her instead.
And now, she's following that lead.
So, on Tuesday, when a Class A player named Jabari Blash took her son deep for his only run he allowed over three innings, Garcia didn't curse or pound the benches around her. She glanced at Walker's younger sister, Noemi, 15, and at a family friend, exchanged smiles and kept on watching.
"I think maybe before, I would be more worried about him with baseball and stuff," she said. "Where he's going to go, whether he's going to make it. But now I don't. I see it a different way. I just enjoy it more."
• After Tuesday night's 6-3 win over the Giants, the Mariners reassigned C Mike Zunino and P Logan Bawcom to minor-league camp and optioned OF Eric Thames to AAA. The moves reduced the Mariners' roster to 37.
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