PHOENIX — Adorning the walls of the minor league offices at the Milwaukee Brewers spring training facility in Maryvale are plaques commemorating the minor league achievements of players like current slugger Prince Fielder and former ace Ben Sheets.
Max Walla isn’t at that point yet, but when the Albuquerque Academy graduate is summoned from the clubhouse, he emerges wearing a life-is-grand grin that suggests getting paid to play in such an environment is still a lot of fun indeed.
“Honestly I’ve just been having a good time with it,” he said. “(I) trust in God through all of it, knowing that wherever I end up … I’m gonna be exactly where I’m supposed to be. I’m just enjoying the game for what it is. I have this fantastic opportunity to chase my dream.”
Just 20 years old and not two full seasons into his professional baseball career, Walla has yet to display the prodigious power that wowed the Brewers into using a 2nd-round pick on him in 2009 and consistently left Albuquerque opponents shaking their heads in amazement during his prep career.
In 337 total at-bats, all but eight of which were with Milwaukee’s Arizona Rookie League squad, Walla has four homers — eight less than his senior year with the Chargers — while hitting .222 with 141 strikeouts. His struggles were more pronounced straight out of high school, but he raised his average by 53 points during the 2010 season as the pro game began to come more naturally to him.
“It takes a little time sometimes for things to click,” said Kenny Dominguez, Walla’s hitting instructor at Arizona. “So Max was going through that tough period where he was trying to think and hit at the same time, and it’s tough to do in a game.”
Part of that adjustment included the transition to wooden bats, where the sweet spot is smaller than that found on the aluminum ones used in the college and high school ranks. Couple that with highly skilled pitchers who know how to utilize the outer portion of the plate, and it’s easy to see why a high school phenom can be humbled quickly.
For Walla, it was all about finding some of the confidence he lost during the initial move to the professional ranks.
“There’s always little mini-battles — those important at-bats — you win some of those battles and you lose some of those battles. There’s a couple times last year, where I didn’t necessarily surprise myself, but (I) just really showed myself to always keep in mind that I can do this,” he said.
Dominguez credits Walla’s work ethic and positive attitude for much of the improvement: “He’s one of my favorite guys — he’s a very respectful, hard-working person.”
But the former manager of the Yankees Gulf Coast League team also points to another skill the young outfielder possesses that portends future success.
“The thing that Max does naturally that a lot of hitters can’t do is he has a serious amount of opposite field power,” Dominguez said. “That’s hard to teach because most guys want to pull, pull, pull.”
Walla spent some time earlier this spring with the Brewers High-A team, an opportunity he used to learn from some of the team’s more experienced players, but it appears unlikely that he will advance any higher than Single-A Wisconsin to start the season.
That’s just fine with Walla, who says he is still wowed when he rubs shoulders with Brewers stars like Fielder, Ryan Braun and Corey Hart.
“It’s kind of the reminder of where you want to be; the goal that you’re chasing. And God willing, I’ll hopefully someday get over there,” he said, pointing across the street to the facility where the big league club works out.
Perhaps by then there will be a plaque on the wall with Walla’s name on it.
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Cutline – Former Academy Charger Max Walla runs bases during a drill at the Brewers spring training camp.