Every time James Walker steps on a baseball diamond, he can’t help but think of his father.
Walker began playing baseball when he was 6 years old after his father realized how much the game could connect him with his three sons. Walker, Sanderson High’s senior reliever, is the youngest.
During a recreational baseball game when Walker was 12, he was in the dugout when he saw someone in the stands collapse. He scanned the crowd. When he couldn’t find his father’s face, Walker realized it must have been him on the ground and rushed over.
Charles Walker suffered an aortic aneurysm and died at the hospital three hours later. He was 59.
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It was two weeks shy of James Walker’s 13th birthday. Not even two years later, he lost his mother to suicide.
Walker said it was too difficult for her to handle the death of her husband and she began taking prescription medication to battle depression. On an August morning in 2013, Walker said a police officer showed up at his door and said his mother, Deborah, who was 49, was found in a nearby hotel.
Just a freshman in high school at the time, Walker struggled to cope.
It’s a tough story. It’s not something you want anybody to go through under any circumstance. But to go through all of that so young, there’s a lot of inspiration there.
Sanderson baseball coach Todd Laughlin
“I definitely had some anger issues to deal with,” Walker said. “It’s an indescribable feeling having so many questions and not having any answers to them. Why? And not having a good answer. It was difficult, but I should have dealt with it better; I let it affect my grades. Baseball and working out, it really does take your mind away from it and allows you to focus on something positive.”
Walker didn’t play baseball for Sanderson until this season, though he previously participated in some summer leagues. He’s wanted to play for the Spartans since his freshman year but said either his grades fell short or he had trouble at home; he tried out three out of four years.
He lived with his grandparents after his parents’ death, and his grandmother died last January.
This year, his senior year and last chance to play high school baseball, Walker decided it was now or never.
He impressed coaches enough this time to earn the role of relief pitcher, contributing to Sanderson’s Cap-8 Conference championship and playoff run while proving his strength and perseverance – on and off the field.
“Why not go for it,” Walker said. “It worked out well.”
The Spartans finished the season 20-8 after falling to Wilmington Hoggard in the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A playoffs at the end of May. They edged Heritage and rival Millbrook for the conference crown.
Sanderson swept Millbrook in the regular-season series, the first time in a 5-4 walk-off victory where Walker pitched the last four innings.
Through 19 games and 35 1/3 innings of relief, Walker finished with two wins, two losses and two saves.
That doesn’t tell his story, though.
“A lot of stats for relievers, you kind of had to be there to appreciate what went on,” Sanderson baseball coach Todd Laughlin said. “He got us through a lot of tough spots. Everybody in our pitching rotation had to kind of take the ball, get out there on the mound and give us 100 percent of what they had. When they were out, we had to give the ball to the next person, and this year that person was James.”
Walker, who’s always pitched, was proud to be on the team this season. It provided an outlet, and he received unwavering support from each of his teammates through bad outings, through team gatherings where other parents were present and through his grief. Not a day goes by Walker doesn’t think of his parents.
He said he wouldn’t be on a baseball field without his father, and the memory of his parents helped him through many tough innings this season.
“If I’m pitching in the seventh inning and we need one more out and my arm is killing me, (I) just got to think about that to get through,” Walker said. “It definitely keeps me going, gives me a little extra strength. You know playing baseball, part of the reason I love it so much, especially being a pitcher, is you can go out there and throw the ball as hard as you can. As soon as you do, you don’t have any problems on your mind.”
On the Sanderson baseball field, Walker accepted his role with gratitude.
Being a relief pitcher – in some cases, or many cases this season – you come in and clean up what someone else started. A lot of problems I’ve faced in my life are cleaning up what happened in the past.
Sanderson’s James Walker
“It just feels like a completely separated place from the rest of the world when I’m on the field,” he said. “Being a relief pitcher – in some cases, or many cases this season – you come in and clean up what someone else started. A lot of problems I’ve faced in my life are cleaning up what happened in the past. You can’t focus on what happened before, especially if it’s not your fault. You have to come in and make it as best you can.”
Walker admitted his parents didn’t always get long. His dad smoked and had the occasional beer. He fought with his older brother. His family didn’t always have a lot of money.
Losing his parents was just another burden he was forced to bear. While a 12-year-old Walker grieved for his father, his source of strength to this day, he couldn’t imagine losing his mother, too.
My father really knew how to keep me strong. Even though he’s gone, he still does.
Sanderson’s James Walker
“Freshman year, my mom hadn’t really handled the loss all that well,” Walker recalled. “It was a big struggle for her and it gave her a lot more issues at home. That just kind of piled onto it.”
Despite tragedy and with the help of his older brothers and his teammates, many of whom were childhood friends, Walker made it to the end of high school. Sanderson will graduate its senior class Thursday, but he will have by then moved to Myrtle Beach with his brother, Matt, the eldest of the Walker brothers.
After finishing his final exams, Walker left town, taking a year-long break before hopefully playing baseball for a community college.
His early departure meant forgoing commencement activities. Although he is graduating, he will not walk across the stage.
“Graduation is one of those happy family times; you have people you love surrounding you,” Walker said. “It doesn’t feel complete without my parents. Graduation, the whole ceremony to me – and I don’t mean to talk down on it – but it doesn’t seem all that special when you don’t have those people who helped you get there.
“It’s not as special of an experience for me.”
Walker is anticipating his new chapter in Myrtle Beach; it will take only one right turn from his new home to get to the sandy shore.
As Sanderson seniors cross the stage, many before their parents and family, Walker will be headed another direction. With his baseball achievements and the loving memory of his parents close to his heart, Walker vowed to use the fortitude he’s gained over the years to continue finding peace after his painful adversity.
Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan