The day before her birthday last month, Mike Walker asked his wife what she wanted for a gift. Justine Walker's request: for her husband to go back to work as a big-league baseball player.
Walker, a pitcher from Brooksville, has had stints with the Cleveland Indians. But this season he again found himself toiling in the organization's minor-league system.
"He has asked me what I wanted," Justine Walker said, "and I said: "The only thing I want is for you to go to Cleveland.' And he did. That night, he got the call."
"It was perfect timing," Mike Walker said.
Walker, a 1984 Hernando High graduate, debuted in the majors with three appearances late in the 1988 season. He spent all of '89 in the minors and was promoted to Cleveland again last year. He ended the season there, compiling a 4.88 ERA in 18 appearances.
Walker made 11 starts last season and went 2-6, but he has found new life as a reliever.
The Indians groomed Walker for his new role by having him begin this season at Canton-Akron of the Class AA Eastern League. He pitched 23 innings in 16 appearances, all in relief.
Walker started the year at Canton-Akron with a low ERA, but six runs in one inning _ including a grand slam _ ballooned it from about 2.00 to 9.00.
"I was ready to quit," he said.
But as he has often in his roller-coaster career, Walker managed to get back on track.
"Every time I got up," he said, "I told myself: "That's it, I've got to get it back together."
And he did, making eight consecutive scoreless appearances from May 2 to May 13 and bringing his ERA down to 4.18. He compiled a club-high eight saves.
Going into the Indians' game against Chicago on Wednesday night, Walker had made three short appearances since his return to Cleveland. In 2 innings, he had struck out two, walked one, and given up two hits and one earned run. His ERA was 3.86.
Walker opened with a scoreless inning in an 8-1 loss to the New York Yankees on May 22, then faced and retired one batter in a game against Baltimore.
In his third outing, Walker threw one inning against Baltimore on May 29. Working in the seventh, he gave up two hits and one run and lost 2-1.
Despite the loss, Walker was pleased with that outing.
"They (Cleveland coaches) wanted me to throw ground balls, and that's what I did," he said. "They said they're happy with what I'm doing."
Walker said his job to date has been that of a short setup man, but Indians media-relations director John Maroon said it is possible that he will make longer middle-relief appearances as the season progresses.
After going nearly a week since pitching in a game, Walker was antsy to throw again.
"I'm anxious to get out there," he said, "but there's nothing I can really do but sit and wait. I throw in the bullpen, but it's just not the same."
"He's been up in the pen a million times, but the situation just hasn't called for him (recently)," Maroon said. "More than anything, that's really just a credit to our starters for the job they've have been doing recently."
The Indians (20-28 as of Wednesday) won four straight before losing 4-1 to the White Sox on Tuesday night.
The 24-year-old Walker is happy with his new role when he compares it with pitching in the minors, but he still is getting used to being a reliever.
"Things are a lot different now," he said. "Mentally, I've got to stay into the game _ the whole game, every game. It's not like where I had to be ready every four or five starts. I've got be ready all the time, because I never know when that phone is going to ring."
Even with the new lease on his career, Walker said staying in the majors is a day-to-day proposition.
"He's feeling a lot of pressure. That's how Mike was last year, and it's the same way this year," said Justine Walker, who found out about a week after Mike was promoted that she was pregnant with the couple's first child.
Justine, who has a daughter, is due in early February. That's just a few weeks before Mike would have to report for spring training.
By then, Walker hopes he will have solidified his position on the Indians staff. But even if he stays up with Cleveland the rest of this season and continues to make a good impression, he still may be looking over his shoulder with job security in mind.
"I'm on edge every day, just like I was last season," he said. "I want to stay here all year, but in the back of my mind I know you never really know. It drives me crazy."
That showed in his reaction when, before a recent game in Milwaukee, Walker looked up in the stands for relatives.
He saw his grandfather and his sister where they were supposed to be sitting but noticed that his mother, Joan Robinett, was not there.
"I said: "Okay, where did my mother go?' I was hoping she just went to the concession stand, but then I looked up and saw her walking away from (Indians manager John) McNamara, and I'm thinking: "No, she didn't, she didn't."'
But she did.
Much to his chagrin, Mike's mom had introduced herself to his manager.
"All of a sudden, I saw him (Walker) waving his finger at me," Robinett said. "He said: "I want to talk to you. What did you say to the man?' I said: "Oh, don't worry. I didn't say anything to embarrass you."'