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Rooker puts aching foot in mouth
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06/10/2003  9:53 PM ET 
Rooker puts aching foot in mouth
After talking the talk, Bucs broadcaster walks the walk
By Ken Mandel / MLB.com Vote now for the 2003 All-Star game
Von Hayes, unaware of the bravado from the booth, started a landslide with a pair of two-run homers. (Stephen Dunn/Allsport)
PHILADELPHIA -- For someone with a scant knowledge of geography or the distance between two points, Jim Rooker knows this:

Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are 320 miles apart.

The former Major League pitcher and broadcaster knows because, nearly 14 years ago, he wore out three pair of sneakers and walked -- counting practically every step -- all because of something he said.

In the final game of a winless, two-city road trip through New York and Philadelphia, the Pirates jumped to a 10-run opening inning of a June 8, 1989, game, highlighted by a Barry Bonds home run. Without provocation, Rooker proclaimed, "If the Pirates lose this game, I'll walk home."

"I said it just like that," said Rooker, now owner of Rooks, a restaurant in Western Pennsylvania. "I don't know why I even thought of it. It was a nonchalant comment because you never think that's going to happen."

Having spent 13 years in baseball and won a World Series ring with the 1979 Pirates, Rooker should've known better. Von Hayes, unaware of the bravado from the booth, started a landslide with a pair of two-run homers cutting the deficit to 10-4. Light-hitting shortstop Steve Jeltz, responsible for five career homers, added a two-run shot in the fourth.

Pittsburgh answered with a run in the fifth, then Philadelphia tacked on four more in the sixth. Pittsburgh clung to an 11-10 lead.

"By the sixth inning, I had a feeling," Rooker said. "They get a run here and there, then Jeltz hits a homer. You're going, 'This is not good.' It got to a point where you knew the Pirates weren't going to win."

"I hadn't thrown a pitch and we're up, 10-0," said Bob Walk, the starting pitcher that day and now a Pirates announcer. "I didn't know what Jim said about walking home if we lost, but someone told me about it afterwards. I'll never say anything like that."

When Jeltz laced his second homer -- a three-run shot that gave Philadelphia the lead, Rooker had forgotten about what he thought was an innocuous comment made in the first inning. After the game, which Philadelphia won 15-11, the Phillies media kidded him and he thought that was the end of it. Still thinking nothing of it, Rooker boarded the team plane and returned home.

After a night's sleep, he awoke in the middle of a controversy.

"I got a call from our flagship station (KDKA) and they wanted me to come on," Rooker said, "There were a ton of people calling. I still don't know why people hung onto that because we never talked about it again. Going on the radio got the ball rolling."

The callers demanded justice. How dare Rooker make such a statement, then smugly ignore it? And why would he say such a thing in the first place?

"Those left-handers always come up with something strange," offered Bob Dernier, who pinch ran during the five-run sixth inning. "Then he had no choice."

Striking a chord for announcers everywhere, Rooker agreed to the marathon walk -- provided that he received sponsorship and would raise money for charity. That, he figured, could represent a way out. No such luck.

"Too many people came forward, unfortunately," he said with a laugh.

So Rooker and friend Carl Dozzi trained that summer and mapped out a course. Sponsors signed up. They hired an orthopedist to teach them how to take care of their feet.

Two days after the Pirates season ended, they took their first steps from in front of Veterans Stadium. A motor home followed them. Local media or residents joined them for parts of the trip and made donations. In one town, a hotel manager had his chef feed them lunch while a violinist played.

The experience of people joining in was very much like the scene in "Forrest Gump" where Forrest runs across America.

"We thought we were ready, but we weren't," said Rooker. "Once we hit the fifth day, we hit a wall and from that day on, it's uphill always. You get beat up and exhausted and your feet never get a chance to recover. You get blisters, then blisters next to those. The worst part about it was the pain. Other than that, it was easy."

"Once we were out in the middle of somewhere talking and Carl said, 'You realize nobody knows or cares where we are. If we decided to quit now, nobody would know.'"

Thirteen days later, having averaged 25 miles a day, the duo strolled through center field at Three Rivers Stadium, just ahead of the rain. No day was easy. They walked eight to nine hours a day, seven days a week, raising $81,000 for a local children's hospital.

Rooker got emotional when his two grandsons made a sign reading, "Welcome home pap!"

The trip completed, Rooker did nothing for the next month, spending time off his feet. He did a commercial for Miller Beer's Hometown Heroes, which ended with the line "I'm glad we weren't playing in California."

"For anybody who thinks they'd like to do something like this, they're nuts," he said. "The only reason I did it is because I said I would. After the fact, it's an amazing accomplishment. At times, it seems like an out-of-body experience because you'll walk at a certain pace and get into a trance. You may walk an hour and not realize where you've been or what you've seen."

Vowing to watch what he said, Rooker returned to the booth for the 1990 season. During a game in St. Louis, the Pirates again jumped out to a big lead. Uh oh.

"I caught on right away and said we're not going to have to worry about taking the long walk from St. Louis and changed the subject. You don't take that chance."

The Pirates held on to win, but for the record St. Louis is 558 miles from Pittsburgh.

Ken Mandel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.



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