The letter is still in a drawer in his bedroom. Right at the top, so he never has to dig too deep to remember how bad it hurt to fail.

Because Todd Walker did fail in 1997. Miserably, painfully, for the first time in his life.A leading candidate for AL Rookie of the Year with the Minnesota Twins, Walker was handed his flimsy copy of the "notice of disposition," the form letter major league players sign when they are demoted, less than two months into the season.

His confidence crushed - he even considered quitting - Walker tucked the letter away and took his .194 average back to the Salt Lake City Buzz. Now that letter might bring the Twins their first batting champion since Kirby Puckett in 1989.

"I think the times when you don't hit as well are times when you give away at-bats," Walker said. "And the easiest way I know not to give away at-bats is to look at that piece of paper and say, `All right, I went 0-for-4. I go back to work tonight or this is what can happen to you,' which, in my opinion, is the worst thing that's ever happened to me."

The nightmare is over now, even though Walker allows some of it to linger as motivation. He honed a tighter version of his sweet left-handed swing during last summer's demotion and is battering opposing pitching the way many predicted he would in 1997.

The second baseman hit .510 in a recent 17-game stretch to bump his batting average to .354 as of Aug. 8, the highest in the majors at the time. He has slipped some since but still is vying with Bernie Williams of the New York Yankees to be the AL's toughest out.

While he admits he still has a long way to go, especially defensively, Walker has put light years between himself and the near-disaster of last year.

"It got very serious there for a period of time," Art Walker said of his son's struggles. "He really began to wonder, `Is this what I want to do for the next five or 10 years, or (do I) come back home and get my degree and go coach high school baseball at some country school somewhere?'

"I just couldn't have dreamed that he would be where he is right now."

How did it happen? How did the can't-miss kid, who was the first .400 hitter in Louisiana State history and who broke Albert Belle's school career record for RBIs, fail so dismally in his first chance in the majors?

It was a combination of elements that skewed his focus and sapped his confidence, including the pressure of all the expectations, and the demands of playing third base for only his second full season at any level. The acerbic style of manager Tom Kelly also was a factor.

The Twins demoted Walker on May 24, 1997, but he regrouped at Salt Lake City and hit .364 after his recall in September.

He has flourished at the plate this season and moved to second base, replacing All-Star Chuck Knoblauch, who was traded to the Yankees.

"If he keeps working at it he'll get better," Kelly said of Walker. "He's got a lot of work in front of him. He knows that."

One reason the Twins were unhappy with Walker was his unwillingness to play winter ball during the 1996-97 offseason. In their mind, he started behind in spring training last year and never recovered.

Walker played in Venezuela last winter, hopping a plane out the day after final exams at Louisiana State. Just like the year before, the results were clear to the Twins from the start of spring training and carried over into the season.

"If you want to play, you have to work," Kelly said. "You don't work, you don't play. It's pretty simple."

Kelly is handling Walker gingerly. He sat him against most left-handed pitchers early in the season, and has had him hitting sixth most often despite Walker's high average.

Walker will be the Twins' No. 3 hitter in the future, but that spot is occupied by Paul Molitor for now and Walker is comfortable where he is.

Looking back, Walker still doesn't believe Kelly chose the best way to handle him. He uses words like "shock," "devastating" and "confused" to describe his rookie experience, but he doesn't blame Kelly for his problems.

Their conversations are almost always positive now, even if Walker still can't quite figure out his manager.

"I walked in (Kelly's office) the other day and it was all good, what we had to talk about, and I just was intimidated," Walker said. "I couldn't hardly speak."

Walker admits the way Kelly handled him might be one of the biggest reasons for his success.

"I was young, and he'll take some shots at you," Walker said. "I was just, I guess, too young to handle it at the time."