Founder of local baseball academy hired as scout for Chicago Cubs
March 1, 2019

Keronn Walker as a player in the Kansas City Royals organization.

By Adam Kivel

From the age of four, Keronn Walker knew baseball would be his life.

His parents were going through a divorce, and as a way to keep the young Keronn busy and his mind occupied, his mother enrolled him in the local little league in Hyde Park-Kenwood and eventually became commissioner of the league herself.

“I grew up on the field,” Walker said. That passion eventually led to a stint in professional baseball, founding a baseball academy in Chicago, and now, in the latest in a series of unexpected leaps in his baseball career, a role as a scout for the Chicago Cubs.

After countless hours on the little league field, Walker went on to play football, basketball, and baseball at De La Salle Institute, eventually focusing on baseball at Kishwaukee College in Malta, IL. Walker later transferred to Bluefield College in Virginia as part of his quest for the major leagues. When a representative from the Kansas City Royals came to a Bluefield Rams game to scout an opposing pitcher, Walker hit a home run off that student and wound up on the Royals’s radar.

The team drafted Walker in the 43rd round of the 1999 Major League Baseball (MLB) draft. “It was the 1,286th pick in the draft, but it didn’t matter,” Walker said. “I wanted to be a major leaguer so badly. It was as close to heaven as anything I’ve ever felt in my life.”

From there, Walker bounced around the Royals’s minor league teams and eventually independent teams, facing the struggles that so many young, hungry players face: low pay, life on the road, a grinding schedule.

He spent his first year as a professional catcher with the Gulf Coast League Royals, a Rookie League team for the Kansas City organization, and from there spent the following five years playing for independent league teams such as the Fort Worth Cats, Evansville Otters, and the Windy City Thunderbolt—based in Crestwood, Illinois. “I bounced around and played on eight different independent league teams over a four-year span,” he said. “But it was cool because I was playing a sport I loved and traveling the country.”

While his love of the game fueled Walker through those issues, baseball’s social and racial politics eventually led to disillusionment.

“There are so few black players at any level, and I dealt with racism back to my time in high school,” Walker explained. “By the time I was 24 years old, I was burnt out.”

Keronn Walker’s friend, major leaguer Curtis Granderson, with youngsters at the B.I.G. Baseball Academy on south Western Avenue.

Staying in baseball

Although a career as a professional catcher did not pan out, Walker was certain he wanted to remain in baseball—though he didn’t know exactly how. He began studying physical education and health at Northeastern University but kept training, visiting the University of Chicago to practice his swing and throw against a wall. During that time, Walker and a few friends who struggled to find places to train when home on winter breaks from college and the minor leagues decided the city’s aspiring baseball players needed a place to train as well.

“There are fancy training facilities in the suburbs, but in the city, it’s freezing half the year and the kids don’t have access to facilities or coaches who played at a higher level,” Walker said. He believes that is partly why fewer and fewer black children aspire to play professional baseball. Walker was determined to change that.

“I knew I needed to start an academy and teach kids how to play,” he said. “I started putting flyers on trees and went from there.”

Walker began the Best Instruction Guaranteed (or B.I.G.) Baseball Academy by offering the occasional camp where he could. He also had venues in Bronzeville. Eventually, he opened the academy’s current facility, a 10,000-square-foot space at 4425 S. Western Ave. The academy has trained thousands of city children. Rather than cause issues, using University of Chicago facilities led to professors and University Lab School leaders to join the academy’s advisory board and help secure resources.

In addition to connections at the University of Chicago, Walker’s history in professional baseball helped ensure academy students had access to the best possible training. In fact, many MLB All-Star and World Series-winning players have visited with students or assisted the academy in some way, including Chicago natives Lucas Gregerson, Jason Kipnis, and Curtis Granderson.

Granderson connection

“Keronn and the B.I.G. Baseball Academy offer year-round opportunities to play and train for baseball for a diverse group of kids in the city,” said Granderson, a 15-year major leaguer who played college baseball in the community for the Flames at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Having the ability to practice all year gives these kids a greater chance to improve their skill, which improves their confidence and excitement for the game of baseball.”

Besides helping the academy, Granderson helped connect Walker to the next step in his career. The three-time all-star and UIC alum introduced Walker to leadership at a camp held in Chicago—at UIC’s Curtis Granderson Stadium. The camp had assembled a plethora of talented instructors to work with kids, and Walker was the only one without time in the majors. Granderson convinced camp organizers that Walker would be a great fit.

“Curtis hooked me up,” Walker said. “The first day, I sat down to get my coaching material, and I was sitting next to Ken Griffey Jr.”

Not long later, a representative from the MLB diverse business office called to ask Walker if he would be interested in taking a step back toward the league—but this time as a scout. Several students he had taught or who had worked out at B.I.G. had wound up going into college or even professional baseball, but Walker had not considered scouting as a profession.

“I told him I would be interested as long as I could spend some time around Chicago because I still wanted to work with my academy and be around my kids,” Walker said.

After interviewing for multiple organizations, he received serious interest from the Chicago Cubs. “I grew up a fan of the White Sox, but once I started my academy, the Cubs helped us out a lot,” Walker said. After a handful of interviews and deliberation, the North Side team created a new position for Walker as a part-time scout, allowing him to continue leading the academy in between scouting in Chicago and going out for special assignments.

“It’s really been a dream come true,” he said. “I went to scout school and the team had me be the club representative at the 2018 MLB draft alongside Andre Dawson.”

Keronn Walker (right) before an interview with ABC-TV Channel 7.

Reaching overlooked youngsters

While the new role will make a massive impact on Walker, it should make a big difference for the many students who come through the doors of the academy as well. “Being a Cubs’ scout gives Keronn the chance to reach some of the kids that often get overlooked, not only to become future MLB players but to become future great young men and women,” Granderson said.

Joey Marciano, a pitcher in the San Francisco Giants organization and an instructor at B.I.G., similarly sees Walker’s new role as a benefit for students.

“The kids come to the academy to get better and to also get seen by professional scouts,” Marciano said. “It’s a win-win scenario for the youth of the community. Now, if the instructors at the academy see a student with real talent who might otherwise have been overlooked because they don’t have access to the same things as a student in a more affluent area, Walker can call a college and share his endorsement of the student as a Chicago Cubs scout.”

Said Walker, “One of the main reasons I took the job was to be able to help kids play at the next level, be it college or pro ball.”

Many South Side students lack access to year-round training facilities and tools such as state-of-the-art pitching machines and batting gear, not to mention access to professional-quality trainers and sufficient training—all of which B.I.G. offers. The academy also holds skills camps, developmental leagues, and even scout showcases, all in the service of helping kids reach their baseball dreams.

In addition to helping train for the rigors of the sport, Walker also hopes that by setting a positive example as a black athlete and representative of an MLB team, he can help aspiring players to be ready to better face potential racism and political issues in their careers.

“It’s a reminder that if you’re good at what you do, color doesn’t matter, and if you work hard and apply yourself, there are really no excuses,” he said.

Even more than preparing students for baseball careers, Walker is committed to preparing young people to become good people. “Now my son has grown up on the field,” Walker noted. “He’s a pitcher in high school, a freshman, and already on the varsity squad. I’m so proud of that, but I want him and all of the kids that come to B.I.G. Baseball to learn life lessons that will help them become a better person, a better citizen, and just be excited about living.”

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