RIP to Dan Walters, who left a career as a major-league catcher and became an officer in the San Diego Police Department. He died on April 23, 2020, at the age of 53, of complications from a gunshot wound suffered in 2003. He was shot in the line of duty and was left paralyzed as a result. His death, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune, is considered a line-of-duty fatality. Walters played for the San Diego Padres (1992-93).
Dan Walters was born in Brunswick, Maine, on August 15, 1966. His father was in the Navy, so he lived everywhere from Guam to Okinawa before settling in California. He attended Santana High School in Santee, Calif. The Houston Astros picked Walters in the 5th Round of the 1984 June Amateur Draft, and he started his professional baseball career the following year.
Walters failed to hit .200 while playing in the low minors in 1985, but his offense appeared in 1986 for the Asheville Tourists. He hit .262 with 21 doubles and 8 home runs. He moved up to AA in 1988 and played in a couple games for the AAA Tucson Toros as well.
Walters joined the Padres organization through a trade on December 16, 1988. Ed Vosberg went from the Padres to Houston in the deal. On one hand, Walters had a great opportunity — his favorite team growing up was the Padres. On the other hand, he was a catcher going to an organization that was stocked with good catchers.
“I thought, ‘What in the world do they want me for?'” he later said. “Benito Santiago was coming off two great years where he was all-world. They had [Sandy] Alomar, who everyone knew would be a star. Mark Parent was already their backup. With all those guys around, why would they want me?”
In his first season with the new team in 1989, he batted .273 for the AA Wichita Wranglers, hit 6 home runs and drove in 45 runs. He split 1990 between Wichita and the AAA Las Vegas Stars, and he hit well in both places. He was part of one memorable game where the Wranglers pounded out 28 hits in a 33-17 win over Midland. Walters hit a grand slam in a 10-run third inning and contributed 8 RBIs to the final score.
Through his minor-league travels, Walters constantly worked to improve whatever aspect of his game needed improving. Bob Nightengale, then writing for the Los Angeles Times, wrote about his dedication in 1992, after Walters made it to the big leagues. When he was told he was too skinny to catch, Walters began lifting weights and gained 60 pounds. When he was told he wasn’t a good enough hitter, he spent a couple of offseasons playing in Mexico to work on his swing. When he was told his throwing technique was awkward, he worked with Padres coach Bruce Kimm to improve his mechanics. He also worked with his pitchers to improve his pitch-framing abilities.
Walters spent all of 1991 with the Stars and hit a career best .317 in 96 games. Of his 93 hits, 22 were doubles, and he homered 4 times as well, driving in 44 runs. By then, Alomar and Parent were out of the Padres organization. Santiago was still a star for the Padres, but Walters was knocking on the door to the major leagues.
Through 35 games in Vegas in 1992, Walters was flirting with a .400 batting average. He was brought to the major leagues after Santiago broke his finger and was expected to miss a month. Walters made his major-league debut on June 1 in Chicago, and he picked up his first hit the next day by drilling an RBI single off the Cubs’ Mike Morgan. His entire family was in the stands at Jack Murphy Stadium when Walters played his first game in San Diego. Reggie Waller, the Padres scouting director who drafted Walters when he worked for the Astros, was there as well.
“It has taken a long, long time, and the odds have been against him, but he has made it,” Waller said. “I’m as proud of him as any player I’ve ever had. Most people never thought he’d spend a day in the majors, but he had this fight in him. This toughness. This determination.”
Walters did the majority of the catching while Santiago recovered from his injury. By June 14, he was jutting just .161, but a 7-game hitting streak brought him up to a respectable .259. He eventually reached the .280s before Santiago returned. Walters stuck on the roster, though, and served as the backup catcher after Dann Bilardello was sidelined with a neck injury.
Walters ended up a good share of starts in September as an audition for the Padres’ catching role in 1993. Santiago was expected to depart as a free agent and, after refusing to play in the outfield, sat on the bench. Walters played in a total of 57 games for the Padres in 1992, slashed .251/.295/.391 and hit 11 doubles and 4 home runs. The 225-pound catcher also stole the only base of his MLB career.
Walters was given the starting catching job for the ’93 Padres. After a hot start, he slumped in the second half of April, and it carried over into May as well. He also had some problems in the field as well, committing back-to-back passed balls and allowing two runs to score in a game that the Padres lost 8-6 to the Cubs. On May 23, 1993, Walters went 2-for-4 with a single and RBI double, raising his batting average on the year to .202. It was his last game in the major leagues, as the Padres sent him back to AAA.
In two years in the major leagues, Walters played in 84 games and slashed .234/.281/.348. He had 64 hits, including 14 doubles, a triple and 5 home runs. He had 32 RBIs as well. Defensively, he had a .985 fielding percentage behind the plate, and he threw out 30 percent of baserunners.
Walters hit .287 with Las Vegas for the rest of the 1993 season. He left the Padres organization after the season as a free agent, and he ended up sitting out all of the strike-shortened 1994 season. He almost signed with the Cubs and Pirates, but nothing ever was finalized. He kept in shape by taking batting practice three or four times a week while living in San Diego. He attempted a comeback with the Colorado Rockies in 1995.
“I’m relatively young,” the 28-year-old told the Tucson Citizen. “I got a lot of baseball left in me. I expect to play baseball for a long time.”
He spent the season in Colorado Springs, the Rockies’ AAA affiliate, and he hit .284. He signed with the Oakland A’s in 1996 and hit .250 in 25 games. He suffered a spinal injury while diving for a ball in spring training, and the injury eventually led to his retirement from baseball at the age of 29.
Walters successfully underwent spinal surgery and rehab, and he began working toward his next career. He graduated from the San Diego Police Academy in 1999 and became a SDPD officer. “Becoming a cop is something I have had in the back of my mind, even while playing,” he said. He had a cousin who was a police officer in Houston.
November 12, 2003 changed Walters life. He recounted the events to San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Fred Dickey in 2013. He and his partner, Officer Aaron Hildreth, were driving down 43rd Street when they saw a patrol car, with its lights on, and Officer Henry Ingram crawling for cover with his gun drawn. Ingram had stopped when he saw a car that had been double parked, blocking traffic. The driver, Jaime Contreras, had been chasing his wife and children in his car and was threatening to kill them. Contreras opened fire when Ingram approached. That was when Walters and Hildreth arrived. Walters picks up the story:
“I immediately thought, ‘Oh, shit!’ and jumped out of the car. Once out, I looked left, then looked back right, and here’s this gunman coming directly at me from about 12 to 15 feet with a gun pointed directly at my face. He didn’t shoot immediately. He kept advancing and stopped at about arm’s length.”
“In that moment, I decided I wasn’t going to let him just stand there and shoot me in the face, so I lunged for the gun, missed, then grabbed him, attempting to get him to the ground and wait for help. He put the gun to the back of my neck and fired.
“I heard a bang, and I’m falling to the ground, looking up at this guy, thinking, ‘Oh, God! I can’t believe it: I’m dead.’ I felt nothing. I was looking straight up and I again thought: ‘I can’t believe I’m dead.’ Then, it all went black.”
Contreras was shot and killed by Officer Hildreth. In the confusion, Walters was run over by a passing vehicle. When he came to, he realized he couldn’t feel anything below his neck. The bullet shattered on impact and left Walters with bullet and bone fragments in his spinal cord. He was paralyzed from the neck down.
“He had a great work ethic,” said Padres manager Bruce Bochy, who had been a coach for the team while Walters was playing, when he heard the news. “He had great perseverance and did everything he could to sharpen his talent and work his way to the big club.”
Walters spent four months in a hospital in Colorado that specialized with spinal cord injuries. The rehabilitation was paid for by the San Diego Police Officers Association and Padres owner John Moores. He returned to California in March of 2004. He had recovered some use of his left arm, enough to control his motorized wheelchair.
Walters lived out the rest of his life in San Diego, with his parents and round-the-clock attendants. He had to deal with the long-lasting physical pain that came with the injury, as well as the psychological trauma. The Padres brought him to the ballpark for a pregame ceremony a couple of years after he was shot, and he occasionally had visits from his old friends on the force. He spoke to recruits at the San Diego Police Academy, but he never had an interest in becoming a public speaker.
When asked about his best moments as a police officer, Walters said, “Being able to help people who needed help; (for example) getting women and children to a shelter.” He relived the events of that night regularly, and while he may have second-guessed some of his actions, he never regretted being at the scene that night.
“Perhaps people were saved because I happened to be there,” he said.