Rob Waltonís USA Baseball
by Tom McCullum
Robert Walton, USA and Oral Roberts University coach, is another example of New Jerseyís baseball stars whose reach extends well beyond its borders.
East Orange Native Son
Walton, born in East Orange and a native of Rutherford, New Jersey, was a three-sport star in high school, earning all-state honors in soccer, basketball and baseball. In 1999 he became the first athlete inducted into the Rutherford High School Hall of Fame.
He chose baseball over basketball and soccer because he knew he could make a living at it, not just earn a college scholarship. In his sophomore year, he began to receive requests for tryouts from pro teams. "Although basketball was my favorite sport, it was a logical decision to go with baseball," he says.
Walton decided to attend Oklahoma State University rather than enter the Texas Rangers organization, the team which drafted him. He cites the injuries he sustained in high school as the reason for his choice. He was injured during a game in his senior year, ironically on the day of the draft. "I heard a pop in my shoulder as I threw the pitch," he explains. "I felt I just wasnít ready to play in the minors after having the shoulder injury. You never know how these things are going to work out."
OSU Division 1 Baseball
Walton had an illustrious career in collegiate baseball, competing for Oklahoma State from 1983 to 1986. At OSU, he compiled an overall record of 20-6 and helped lead the Cowboys to four consecutive College World Series appearances. In 1986, Waltonís senior season at OSU, he earned Player of the Game in the College World Series, with a shutout performance, the first in the College World Series since 1976.
Walton speaks glowingly of his days playing baseball at OSU. "We had really good teams at Oklahoma State. In a three-year span we had eighteen first-round picks in the major league draft. We played the Texas Rangers AAA team four times and beat them all four," he exclaims.
During his college career, his shoulder injury began to catch up to him. "The injury stayed with me for years. I had rotator cuff problems. I had two surgeries to try to relieve the pain," Walton points out. He also developed tendonitis in the shoulder over time. One day while working out on campus, he ran into Thurman Thomas, the star running back on Oklahoma Stateís football team. Walton shared his frustration with Thomas about his injury. Thomas advised him to see his orthopedist, who had operated on him.
Walton saw Thomasí doctor and scheduled exploratory surgery. It was then discovered that he had a tumor on his shoulder blade. "The injury had been misdiagnosed for years. It was an unusual injury, very unfortunate," he says. After surgery and rehabilitation, he began to throw without any pain.
Walton was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in 1986 and played for that organization for four years. During his time with the Orioles, he compiled a record of 23-8 in A and AA ball. In 1988 he was second in wins in the entire Orioles farm system. He was twice named Carolina League Player of the Week, tying a league record for consecutive shut-out innings pitched, with 26.
He characterized his participation in the minor leagues single A as a step down from the competition level at Oklahoma State. He played with future major leaguers at OSU such as former Yankee and Met Robin Ventura. Walton admitted making the jump to AA ball was considerably harder. "There is a big difference in the pace and speed of the game. The hitters are a lot better," he said. "In A ball you can pitch around the three and four hitter and get by," he explains. "Itís a physical as well as a mental battle."
Walton was forced to leave the minor leagues in 1989 due to his shoulder injury, but heís still a member of the Professional Baseball Players Association.
It didnít take him long to become one of the top college baseball coaches in the country. In just five years, he has gone from renowned pitching guru to respected and ultra-successful skipper.
Skipper Rob Walton
at the Helm
This is Waltonís thirteenth season at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It is his eighth season as head coach; he spent the previous five as an assistant. Last season, he led the Golden Eagles to their eleventh straight conference title and NCAA regional appearance. Oral Roberts moved into third place all-time in NCAA history for consecutive conference crowns, while also posting its eleventh consecutive forty-win season (48-14).
In Waltonís tenure at Oral Roberts, sixteen pitchers have either been drafted or have signed professional contracts, including Jackson Markert, an eleventh-round pick of the San Francisco Giants. Markert won the 2001 Rolaids Minor League Relief Award, given to the top relief pitcher in the minors. Walton has also coached eight All-Americans, seven Summit League Pitchers of the Year and eighteen first-team all-conference pitching selections.
This past summer Walton was named the head coach of Team USA Baseball. He led Team USA to the gold medal, defeating Japan 1-0, marking the first time the National Team has gone undefeated (24-0). The pitching staff set a National Team record with an ERA of 0.88 and posted six shutouts while not allowing more than two earned runs in any game. The bull-pen was a key part of that success, only allowing eight earned runs in 84 innings for an ERA of 0.87.
"I canít explain it. I am very fortunate and humbled by the opportunity," Walton says, adding, "It was the best experience of my life, to travel to places I have never been to, such as Europe and Asia. I canít describe the feeling."
During team USAís run to the gold medal, Walton did a fabulous job managing the pitching staff. He convinced three of the starting pitchers to move to the bull-pen for the good of the team. As a pitching staff, team USA recorded a 2.1 ERA.
"It was an unbelievable and magical experience," he concludes about the gold medal win. "We were fortunate there were no injuries, I have a lot of respect, for everyone I worked with."