Walker Jenkins: The talented teenager who is determined to be baseball’s best (“1on1 with Jon Evans” podcast)
OAK ISLAND, N.C. (WECT) - The Jenkins family heard the announcement around 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, July 9, as they sat watching television in their Oak Island home. They’d been told that Rob Manfred, the Commissioner of Major League Baseball, would likely mention the name they were waiting to hear when he stepped up to the podium.
“With the fifth pick in the 2023 MLB draft, the Minnesota Twins select Walker Jenkins, outfielder, from South Brunswick High School in Southport, North Carolina,” said Manfred.
With those words, 18-year-old Walker Jenkins’s baseball career changed course. Although many mock drafts and experts had their son pegged in the #5 pick, Walker’s parents, Clay and Tana, did not want to take it for granted.
“I wouldn’t believe it until I actually heard it,” Clay said. “And at that point, I was like, ‘Yep, it’s not a joke. It’s actually happening’.”
“Excitement, just overjoyed and then relieved,” said Tana. “Once his name was called we’re like, ‘He (Manfred) actually called his (Walker’s) name! This is just amazing that my son’s name was just called on national TV for the draft’.”
For Walker, it’s another accomplishment in what has become his passion.
“It was rewarding for not only me, but I think for my family and my friends and everyone that’s been there with me throughout the process,” he said. “It’s surreal. It still feels surreal. I still feel like I’m a little kid that’s just playing baseball.”
Sixteen days after that special night, the Jenkins family went to Minneapolis and looked on as Walker signed a professional baseball contract with the Twins. It came with a signing bonus of more than $7.14 million. The slugging outfielder has reported to the club’s minor league team in Fort Myers, Florida to begin the next chapter in his story. From the time he started playing baseball, Walker had made up his mind he would be more than just a big leaguer.
“I even remember that six-, seven-year-old Walker, I was going around telling people, ‘I’m going to be a major league baseball player’,” he said. “That’s the mindset I’ve had throughout and it’s never wavered. And not only has that mindset gone from, ‘I’m just going to be an MLB player’, but ‘I’m going to be the best’, you know, and I truly mean that. That’s something that I’ve always had in my brain ever since I started playing.”
The work ethic started in Walker’s earliest playing days, according to Clay and Tana. One of the turning points came when, as a six-year-old, Walker did not make the Southport/Oak Island Little League all-star team.
“There’s a reason I still tell that story,’ Walker says with a smile. “I’ve never forgotten it. Never will. I think that’s where some of the fire and the passion to be the best started. I was like ‘I don’t like this feeling of losing, not being the best. I’m gonna change that’.”
“All of his failures have done nothing but fuel him,” said Clay. “There has never been a time where he’s failed at something and thought, ‘I guess I deserve that’, or ‘Man, you know, I guess I want to just hang it up’. Every time something, set him back, even outside of baseball, it drives him to work harder and to be better.”
As Walker progressed through Little League and Dixie League, he continued to develop his skills. His parents tell a familiar story about how intense their son’s focus became on improving his talents.
“For years, there was a little baseball field on Oak Island, a block from the beach, that we would go to this time of year, in July and August,” Clay begins. “And he’d be begging to go out there and for me to hit him ground balls. Tana would be at first base.”
“He was eight or nine,” Tana says.
“I was hitting them, he was fielding them throwing them to Tana, or else we’d be out there taking batting practice,” Clay continued. “And all of his friends, and our friends, are parked and walking to the beach and they’re like, ‘I can’t believe you’re making him practice!’ We’re like,’We’re not making him practice! I want to go to the beach! He’s begging us to be out here!’ Even at an early age, and he still does this, first thing in the morning, if not the night before, he’s timing out when he’s going to practice his baseball. People would often think we were the ones pushing him to be there, and that was not the case at all.”
The determination showed at other times, too. Tana told a story about Walker getting a school assignment to write about what he wanted to be when he grew up.
“I can think back to fourth grade, him having to write a paper ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’,” Tana said. “(Walker) said, ‘An MLB player’. The AIG teacher told him he couldn’t do that. He came home and he was very upset. She ended up letting him do it, but he would get very upset when people told him he couldn’t do it.”
When Walker arrived at South Brunswick High School, he had to overcome another obstacle. He had surgery to correct a hip problem and during his rehabilitation, he turned to swimming. It became one of his mainstays in keeping in top shape. As a senior, he swam the opening leg of the school’s 200 meter freestyle relay at the state 3A championship meet, leading the Cougars to an eighth-place finish.
“Swimming has been extremely beneficial,” Walker says. “In the offseason, you’re working out, you’re moving weights, that starts to pull everything together. The muscles start to tighten. Swimming loosens your body up, allows you to stay flexible, mobile and healthy. That’s the most important part of being an athlete. If you can’t be on the field, you can’t be successful. So, I did that to help keep my body in shape and prepare me for the upcoming season, and make sure I was prepared to stay on the field and play as hard as I can, and stay healthy.”
That freshman year is also when Walker visited his first baseball showcase. Clay says they went to an event in Georgia, and Walker was unranked at the time as a baseball prospect. But he opened some eyes with his performance, and Dad says it introduced the family to a new world.
“He did really well,” Clay remembers. “And we were flooded with agents, and scouts, and people. I didn’t even know what language they were talking. I went down there unprepared for what we got into. At that point, I thought, ‘Well, if, these were the best people, he’s capable of playing with them’. But even at that point, my dream for him, and my hope was that he could play Division One baseball. I don’t know when it happened but at some point, (baseball) went from being a dream to realizing he’s going to do this.”
Walker’s game started to reach new heights with the showcase experiences. He received an invitation to take part in the 2021 TEAM USA National Team Development Program and made the 18-and-under squad. But, after being slowed by a hand injury last year, Walker did not make the national team. It’s another of the experiences the young man uses as fuel for his competitive fire.
“I got cut when I was six, I got cut when I was thirteen, I got cut this most recent year,” Walker said. “Those are all situations where they are motivating factors. I’m not trying to prove anything to anyone else. I’m trying to prove that I’m the best to myself, and I want to know that I’m the best in my own head. I’m just a competitive person, and I’m always gonna want to be the best. So, you know, I think those are great motivators, and I think you have to have failures to learn how to succeed. That’s the way I look at it, those failures only helped me succeed and be better.”
In his junior season at South Brunswick, Walker led the Cougars to the 3A Eastern Championship and a spot in the state finals. They came up short, dropping Game 3 to South Rowan 11-6. Walker batted .527 that season, earning Gatorade High School Baseball Player of the Year award in North Carolina. He won the award again following his senior season, and by that time many of the baseball insiders considered the left-handed hitting outfielder the best high school prospect in the country. Walker looks back fondly on that 2023 season that ended his prep career.
“It was really enjoyable to be honest,” he said. “Growing up with a lot of the guys who played on that team, getting to finish my high school career with the same guys I’ve grown up with, was a ton of fun. A lot of them are my best friends, guys that I’ve known my whole life. It went by so fast.”
Walker gives a lot of credit to his parents for their encouragement and commitment in helping him chase his baseball dreams. From the countless hours of playing catch, throwing batting practice, driving to showcases and alternating weeks of staying with him on the road. He says they have also helped him stay grounded as the accolades and awards came his way.
“My parents have been a kind of a supporting beam to me throughout this whole process.” Walker said. “Without them I wouldn’t be where I am today. They’ve molded me into the person I am. You’re going to be humble in this family, and that’s the way they raised me. Treat others the way you want to be treated, and act that way. They’ve just continued to remind me along this whole process, ‘Continue to be that person’.”
Clay and Tana have watched their son stay laser-focused on baseball, while still excelling academically and contributing to the Southport-Oak Island community.
Walker has reported to the Twins’ club’s Single-A team in Fort Myers, Florida, and will soon be on the field with his new teammates.
“He says, ‘I want to be an all-star, I want to be a Hall of Famer’,” Tana said. “He has the stepping stones to go on, not just to say, ‘I was drafted’.”
“Being drafted, as exciting as it was, is a step in the process,” said Clay. “Definitely not what his ultimate goal is.”
I hope you enjoy the conversation with Walker Jenkins and his parents as much as I did. He is a tremendously determined young man, who is respectful of others and of the game. If his track record of hard work is any guide, look for Walker Jenkins to progress through the Minnesota’s minor league system and make his way to ‘The Show’ sooner rather than later.
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