When James Walker tackles the task of turning a bunch of 9-year-olds into a baseball team, he makes them play catch until they're really good at it.
While other teams jump into batting practice and fielding grounders, Walker makes sure his Burlington Edison Little League squads have a firm grounding in the most fundamental parts of the game: throwing and catching the baseball.
"The team that plays the best catch wins," said Walker, a Senior Production Specialist at the Shell Puget Sound Refinery who has been coaching Little League since his eldest son, Ryan, now 17, was 6. He's currently coaching his youngest son, 9-year-old Tyler, in the league's Minor's divisions. "We started out as the Bad News Bears, but we've only lost a couple of games. I think they're all pleasantly surprised that we worked so hard on playing catch."
Walker, like many other employees of the refinery, spends much of his off time coaching young people. With three baseball-playing sons, he coached seven days a week for years, and took Ryan's 13-year-old team to the Babe Ruth World Series in 2012.
A former player who starred at Oak Harbor High School and Skagit Valley College before an injury ended his aspirations to play pro ball, Walker has worked in the refinery industry since 1991, when he joined Anvil Corp., a contractor to Shell and other refineries. Over the years, he has worked at all five refineries in Washington State. He sees plenty of parallels between the diamond and the workplace.
"You have to work as a team. Everybody has their strengths," said Walker, who is currently working on the Leadership Skagit Program put on by the Economic Development Association of Skagit County, Skagit Valley College and the WSU-extension. "It's all about building a team where you have a different group of strengths. You don't want to only have 12 pitchers on your Little League team, you need position players also."
Walker's work at the refinery has always demanded teamwork. In his current role, he works to make sure that the refinery is producing the specific types of diesel and gasoline that that the marketplace requires to keep the facility as competitive as possible. Previously, he worked as an operations maintenance specialist, working with the refinery's operations and maintenance departments to improve reliability by ensuring that equipment was maintained and upgraded properly.
In his other life as a baseball dad, Walker is similarly focused on making sure things run properly. As vice-president of the Burlington Edison Little League, he supervises the annual Field Day to maintain the league's diamonds. He's also working to make sure the league weathers the competition from other sports such as lacrosse and soccer.
"We've really been working hard to build the bottom of the pyramid, get a lot more kids playing t-ball," Walker said. "We're getting the word out through all the schools. It's going in the right direction."