Walker Recalls Team USA Experience
In an amateur career that has progressed from the Dallas suburbs to Norman to Team USA, Steele Walker has continued to hit at each level as the lights have shown brighter at each stop. Named the Dallas Morning News Player of the Year as a senior at Prosper High School, Walker soon made an impact at the collegiate level as a Freshman All-American before being honored as an All-Big 12 selection as a sophomore.
Walker hit a steady .333 with a .541 slugging percentage and team-leading 51 RBI for the University of Oklahoma baseball team this season. A left-handed hitter, Walker’s ability to hit righties and lefties as well as a knack for driving in runners with two outs and his permanent move to center field, attracted USA Baseball to the rising Sooner junior. He was formally announced as having accepted an invitation to training camp for the Collegiate National Team on June 16.
“I got the call from USA Baseball and I was told I could come to the trials,” recalled Walker. “It sounded like there were going to be over 30 players trying out and I had heard they only keep 24. Going in, I trusted my ability and knew all I could do was play as hard as I can.”
Along with OU teammate Jake Irvin, Walker arrived in Cary, N.C. to compete for a spot on Team USA for its upcoming summer tour, which would start a 21-game schedule on June 22.
"Being able to hear that whole crowd chant U-S-A over-and-over was a really cool experience. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity."
-- Steele Walker
“I went in and trusted God and needed to call on him when it was getting hard,” continued Walker. “I didn’t want to focus on making the team. I just wanted to focus on the little things; doing everything I can and leaving it up to the coaches to make the decisions. Ultimately, I made the final roster and it was a big relief.”
Before the final roster was announced, Team USA played five games against competition from the Coastal Plain League, a wood-bat collegiate summer league. Immediately, Walker earned the right to compete for starts in right and left field and was placed up and down the Collegiate National Team’s batting order.
USA Baseball announced Walker as having made the 24-man roster for its series against Chinese Taipei, which kicked off on June 27. Walker became the sixth player in Sooner history to officially suit up for Team USA and the first since Brian Shackelford in 1995. Meanwhile, Irvin was left off the roster despite three-hitless innings with five strikeouts in his only appearance.
Walker tracks down a fly ball during tryouts at USA Baseball training complex in Cary, N.C.
Irvin’s contributions to the team would not end there as he was called back to make a start against the Futures League All-Stars in Worcester, Mass. on July 11. The game was set the day before Team USA began its series against Japan and the team looked to Irvin to carry the load for the pitching staff on that day.
“Irvin did unbelievable,” said Walker. “The coaching staff praised him so much because he didn’t have to come back, but he was willing to do it for our team. His start was huge for us to get ready for the series against Japan because we needed everyone. Everyone at USA appreciated what he did for us.
“Playing for Team USA is a completely different experience because you’re representing so much more than your school or your town. The coolest part was being around the fans and knowing that they support you no matter what, because you represent the whole country.”
The experience was not only a great source of pride for Walker and his teammates. It also served as an opportunity for growth and development as ballplayers. The Collegiate National Team played 20 games, one vs. Chinese Taipei was rained out, over the course of 26 days in five different states.
At its highest level, a baseball regular season lasts 162 games. The players refer to the sport as a grind. It takes not only physical, but mental strength to compete at a high level each day.
“In pro ball and at the major league level, players are mentally locked in and get themselves ready to play and perform in high pressure situations when it means a lot each day, which is probably the toughest part,” noted Walker. “I’m trying to learn and take things as I go. Mentally you’ve got to be able to get yourself ready to play. I’m thankful for this opportunity. Even going back to the Cape will be tough, but I’m thankful I can go and surround myself with great players and competition to prepare me for what’s ahead.”
Walker began to hit his groove with the start of the Chinese Taipei series. He cemented himself as Team USA’s three-hole hitting right fielder and was named series MVP. Walker’s success rolled over into a series against Cuba beginning with a four-hit game. He hit his second home run of the summer in game two against the Cubans and went on to win his second MVP as the Collegiate National Team claimed its second series win.
Following its 6-4 win over the Futures League, which featured OU lefty Braidyn Fink and incoming freshman righty Cade Cavalli, USA Baseball was set for its summer finale; a five-game set against Japan.
“I’d never played a complete international team,” said Walker. “It was cool to see the different styles of play. Chinese Taipei and Japan kind of played similar to each other. Then Cuba played at such a slower pace, kind of like a relaxed, having fun type of pace and I wasn’t used to that either. The different cultures played a little differently, but they were all amazing players.”
Walker earned MVP of Team USA's series wins against both Chinese Taipei and Cuba this summer.
Team USA won the opener in Hartford, Conn.; a walk-off 2-1 decision. Japan rallied for a 6-3 win in Brockton, Mass. and a 5-4 win in Lowell, Mass. to take the series lead. The Collegiate National Team returned to Worcester and evened the series with a 3-1 win. In a winner-take-all fifth game, the Japanese put up a run in the top of the first, but would be held scoreless the rest of the way as Team USA came from behind, 3-1, to win the game and the series.
“Japan was definitely the best team we played,” stated Walker. “Their pitching was so polished. Every game went down to the eighth or ninth inning. I’m glad we pulled that series out in the fifth game.”
Three international series wins and a 15-5 overall record brought Team USA’s summer to an end. The experience gave Walker the opportunity to further his development toward professional baseball, but also provided the chance to meet new teammates and sport the Red, White & Blue as he represented his country.
“That was one of the cooler things that I’ll take away from it. It was a lot of hard work; day-in and day-out. Being able to get to know those guys from all over the country, knowing they’re the best players where they come from and getting to know them on a personal level was a cool thing I got to experience. Everyone is just another baseball player. We were all thankful to play the game. I’ll cherish it forever.
“Playing in Charlotte on the Fourth of July, the place was sold out and we were playing Cuba. We were 2-0 and we were trying to win the series in the third game. Being able to hear that whole crowd chant U-S-A over-and-over was a really cool experience. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
USA Baseball took the players to Fenway Park in Boston on their off-day following the Japan series. Walker and his teammates were treated to a tour of the historic home of the Boston Red Sox before going their separate ways to conclude the summer with their respective teams.
For Walker that means a return to the Brewster Whitecaps, a short drive from Boston to the Cape Cod League. Prior to heading out to tryouts for Team USA, Walker appeared in three games for Brewster. He went 2-for-10 in limited action with two RBI before departing for USA Baseball’s National Training Complex in Cary, N.C.
“It’s a lot more relaxing vibe, which is kind of refreshing,” Walker said of being on the Cape. “Coming back here, I’m thankful that I’m healthy and that I survived the USA campaign healthy and excited to get back to the Cape and be around more amazing players. Heading back to Norman for the fall, I hope to bring that same mindset with me.”
Although the opportunities to play at the professional level are on the horizon for Walker, his short term goals have his sights set on a return to L. Dale Mitchell Park this fall. Oklahoma is coming off a 35-win season and third place finish in the Big 12, which ranked first in the nation in conference RPI in 2017.
“We’ve got the group messages going and we all check in on each other,” Walker said of him and his OU teammates. “Those guys love to crack jokes and I miss all that stuff and being around them a lot, but I’ll be seeing them in a few weeks. I’m looking forward to that. I miss them.”
The Sooners got their first taste of the postseason since 2013, but were eliminated early with a 1-2 showing as the two-seed at the Louisville Regional to wrap up 2017. With new head coach Skip Johnson at the helm, Walker and the Sooners are hungry to get back on campus and get a bigger bite of the postseason pie come 2018.