Barry Larkin and the Hall's call
A writer who covered the Reds' shortstop reflects on his Cooperstown qualities
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- The newspaper clips are yellowed and crinkly with the passage of two decades. They've survived moves from Cincinnati to Denver to the Philadelphia suburbs, not to mention the great sump pump disaster of 2004 and the residual basement dust from a kitchen remodeling in 2011.
The Barry Larkin who stares back at me now from those old Cincinnati Post sports sections is lithe, athletic and capable of energizing a crowd with a flick of a switch. He can drive the ball over the fence or shoot it the opposite way on a hit-and-run. He'll steal a base when it matters most or range into the hole and gun a throw to first to beat the runner by a step.
During the 1989 season, St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog chose Larkin and Will Clark as the two players he would most like to build a team around. Herzog had a pretty good shortstop of his own at the time in Ozzie Smith, but the combination of Larkin's youth and versatility was enough to make the White Rat's bristle cut stand at attention.
No matter how much praise came his way, Larkin never thought of himself as the spoon that stirred the Skyline Chili. Even in the spring of 1992, after the Cincinnati Reds traded Eric Davis to the Los Angeles Dodgers and Larkin was anointed "the man'' in the Riverfront Stadium home clubhouse, he seemed ill at ease with that perception.
"I don't see myself as a star player," Larkin told me that spring. "I'm not a guy who will hit 30 home runs or steal 70 bags or drive in 120 runs. I try to give you consistent play offensively and defensively. And in the clubhouse, when something needs to be said, I'll step forward and say it."
Larkin piled up awards and did his job with aplomb for 19 seasons -- all in his hometown of Cincinnati. He made 12 All-Star teams, won nine Silver Sluggers, three Gold Gloves and a Most Valuable Player award, and amassed 2,340 hits and 379 stolen bases. With the possible exception of Rickey Henderson and Roberto Alomar, it was hard to find a player better equipped to dominate a game without cranking 30 bombs a season.
He always viewed himself as a complementary piece. His former teammates, opponents and several hundred baseball writers regarded him as a whole lot more.
In January, those baseball writers elected Larkin to the Baseball Hall of Fame on his third try with 86.4 percent of the vote. He will be formally inducted at Sunday's ceremony in Cooperstown.
My first year as Reds beat writer for the Post was 1988. I walked into the manager's office on St. Patrick's Day in Plant City, Fla. -- home of the Florida Strawberry Festival -- and saw Pete Rose sitting at his desk. It was the start of a very wild ride.
Two weeks into the season, the Reds made news for allegedly throwing food and insulting flight attendants during a trip from San Francisco to Houston. Two weeks after that, Rose received a 30-day suspension for shoving umpire Dave Pallone during an argument, and broadcasters Marty Brennaman and Joe Nuxhall were summoned to New York by commissioner Bart Giamatti and scolded for their "inflammatory and completely irresponsible remarks" in the booth.
I remember thinking, "Can it get any crazier than this?"
It could and did, of course. The 1989 baseball season in Cincinnati was consumed by a gambling investigation that forced Rose into exile from the game and turned all our lives into a reality show.
Larkin was Cincinnati's best all-around player during my five years on the beat and invariably a joy to cover. He was thoughtful and accountable and had a knack for relating to every corner of the clubhouse. He spoke fluent Spanish and deftly bridged the gap from blacks to whites to Latinos and from young players to veterans. He played the game with enough flash to appeal to a new generation of fans while personifying the old-school mindset that purists hold dear.
But Larkin rarely provided the best copy. Davis, the "next Willie Mays," was a constant source of fascination in Cincinnati. Paul O'Neill, the self-tortured all-American boy from Columbus, once punted a ball back to the infield at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. The Nasty Boys were generally a hoot, but the Rob Dibble Experience took at least three years off my life. Owner Marge Schott, meanwhile, polluted the air with cigarette smoke and distributed plastic bags filled with Saint Bernard hair for good luck. She once settled a $25,000 contract dispute with outfielder Kal Daniels by flipping a coin in the Plant City Stadium parking lot.
And who could forget Pete, filling notebooks and dropping sitcom and pop-culture references like bread crumbs? When Rose wasn't referring to O'Neill as "Jethro" because of his resemblance to Max Baer's "Beverly Hillbillies" character, he called Chris Sabo "Spuds MacKenzie" because he was a dead ringer for a certain beer-plugging canine. Sabo drove a 1982 Ford Escort, moonlighted at a McDonald's during the instructional league and once stormed out of a barbershop in mid-haircut because he was irate over the way things were going.
Larkin was just Barry, the product of a family with great athletic and academic credentials. His brother Michael played linebacker at Notre Dame and tried out for the Buffalo Bills and New Orleans Saints. Byron is the career scoring leader for Xavier University basketball and ranks 21st in NCAA Division I history, and Stephen played baseball at Texas before an extended minor league run and a cameo with the Reds in 1998. Robert and Shirley Larkin stressed the importance of striving for excellence on the playing field and in the classroom, and the Larkins were routinely referred to as a real-life version of Bill Cosby's Huxtables.
Barry's road could have gone in a number of directions. He decided against playing defensive back at the University of Michigan after being redshirted his freshman year, and coach Bo Schembechler never tired of throwing zingers his way when Larkin was taking batting practice in the fieldhouse.
"Why don't you hit something that hits back?" Bo was fond of saying.
As a Cincinnati native, Larkin did his hometown proud. His journey began with the Kennedy Heights-Silverton T-ball team and wound its way through knothole baseball, the Connie Mack League and Mike Cameron's Moeller High program, which also sent Buddy Bell, Ken Griffey Jr. and several other players to the majors.
But the hometown kid had to fight for every scrap. Larkin never forgot how Gary Green and Flavio Alvaro logged the bulk of the middle-infield at-bats for the 1984 U.S. Olympic team, or how he had to outlast Kurt Stillwell to win the starting job in Cincinnati. Early in Larkin's big league career, longtime Reds executive Sheldon "Chief" Bender told him a shift to second base might be necessary because he lacked the skills to play shortstop. Larkin quietly filed away that conversation for future reference and used it for motivation down the road.
When the spirit moved him, Larkin would, indeed, step forward and speak his mind. When the Reds pressured Ken Griffey Sr. to retire in 1990 to create a spot on the roster, Larkin, Davis and Herm Winningham inscribed the No. 30 on their shoes in protest. Larkin made a similar gesture with the No. 24 when the Reds fired manager Tony Perez 44 games into the 1993 season.
When Schott referred to Dave Parker and Davis as her "million-dollar n-----s," Larkin quietly seethed. He called her comments "embarrassing" and said there was no place for racism in baseball. His words were measured, but the resolute tone in his voice conveyed his sense of outrage.
Larkin soon paid a price for expressing his opinions. He received hate mail and death threats, and was prompted to take the letters to the FBI and begin registering in hotels under an assumed name.
"When the controversies came up, people came to me for a response for the team, so I couldn't walk a line," Larkin said. "I stated what I stated. I said what I said. There's a right and wrong way to do things, on all of those issues."
In truth, I wasn't completely sold on the idea of voting for Larkin when his name first appeared on the Hall ballot. He spent a lot of time on the disabled list and played 140 or more games only seven times in 19 seasons. But the final numbers make for a strong case. Larkin is tied for 61st all time (with Alan Trammell) with a wins above replacement of 67.1. That number puts him ahead of such contemporaries as Tony Gwynn, Tim Raines, Ryne Sandberg, Roberto Alomar, Manny Ramirez and Eddie Murray.
Larkin passed the eye test, too. He was a leader, an exceptional teammate and the type of player who took it personally when he failed to hit a ground ball to the right side to advance a baserunner. He set an example for his teammates as well as those starry-eyed knotholers in Cincinnati.
As a baseball writer, I'll derive a special thrill from seeing Larkin's big day at Cooperstown because I was there for his formative years and my time on the beat coincided with his lows, highs, slumps and biggest personal triumphs. One very poignant Cincinnati Post clipping -- dated Oct. 22, 1990 -- features the headline "World Champs!" and a photo of a joyous Larkin with his right fist aloft as teammate Joe Oliver pours champagne down his back. The pride of Cincinnati had come a long way from his Moeller High School days.
At 48, Larkin is now working for ESPN and experiencing the joys of fatherhood through the accomplishments of his three children. His daughter Brielle is a makeup artist and former high school lacrosse star in Florida. His son, Shane, plays guard for the University of Miami basketball team, and daughter Cymber, the youngest, will sing the national anthem during the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies Sunday. "It's definitely something special, but I'll be nervous as heck for her," Larkin said.
His boyhood inspiration, Dave Concepcion, never made it to Cooperstown. But Larkin will be there this year to represent his family, the city of Cincinnati and the ideal that excellence is a long-term proposition. He'll be the only member of the 2012 writers' ballot on the podium.
He'll look right at home.