After revolutionizing his position, Larkin headed to Cooperstown
NEW YORK -- The first time Barry Larkin met his childhood idol, longtime Reds shortstop Davey Concepcion, he made a bad impression. Or, rather, Dave Parker made it for him.
When Larkin was a freshman shortstop at the University of Michigan in 1983, he had a chance to visit in the Reds clubhouse, at which point Parker, whom Larkin knew because they shared Cincinnati roots, immediately embarrassed his younger friend.
"My first interaction with the guy I idolized as a kid," Larkin said, "Dave Parker walks into the room and says, 'Hey, this guy's going to take your job.' I'm sitting there, looking at Parker and I'm going, 'You're not supposed to be saying that.'
"Davey looked at my hands and saw all the calluses from working out and said, 'No, you're not going to take my job. Your hands are too hard.'"
As fate would have it, Larkin did take Concepcion's job after the Reds made him the No. 4 overall pick of the 1985 draft and Larkin debuted in the majors a year later, beginning a 19-year career that will culminate this summer with his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Those callused hands proved no impediment to Larkin's career, which included stellar defense at shortstop (three Gold Gloves) as well as offensive accolades (nine Silver Sluggers) and several more for his all-around play (12 All-Star appearances and the 1995 National League MVP).
Larkin entered the league when all-around play wasn't an essential part of the shortstop job description, at least not in the NL. While the American League was witnessing a change in the position through the play of the Orioles' Cal Ripken Jr., the Brewers' Robin Yount and the Tigers' Alan Trammell, Larkin had no peer in the NL.
"I didn't consider myself as a trailblazer," Larkin said at Tuesday's Hall of Fame press conference at New York's Waldorf-Astoria hotel. He allowed himself only the recognition that "there wasn't a real strong offensive-minded shortstop in the National League" and the self-awareness that his "tenure in the game might last a little longer because I could handle the bat."
In fact, Larkin said that in his playing days he called himself the "Amoeba Man" for his ability to take whatever role his team needed to win. He was adept at bunting and moving the runner over. He played great defense. And he started at least 21 games at every spot in the lineup.
But it was his work in the middle of the lineup -- his 757 starts while batting third are his most, outpacing his 669 starts batting second and 402 starts as the leadoff hitter -- that was revolutionary, at least for an NL shortstop. Before Hanley Ramirez and Troy Tulowitzki came along, there was Barry Larkin.
(And Ernie Banks, of course, although Banks played more first base than shortstop in his career while Larkin played only three games in 19 seasons at a position other than short.)
As a 6-foot, 185-pound former football player, Larkin packed pop while maintaining his speed and range, and the results were impressive:
• He became the first shortstop to join the 30-30 club when he belted 33 home runs and stole 36 bases in 1996.
• His 198 home runs as a shortstop currently rank seventh alltime, but at the time he entered the league in 1986 only one player who was primarily a shortstop, Vern Stephens, had more than 170 career homers.
• Larkin's lifetime .444 slugging percentage currently ranks 14th among shortstops, but only five of the 13 players ahead of him began their careers before he did.
• His .815 OPS ranks fifth alltime among shortstops who played a minimum of 1,500 games (and at least 60 percent of them at short), trailing only fellow Hall of Famers Arky Vaughan, Joe Cronin and Honus Wagner, as well as future Hall of Famer Derek Jeter.
• His 3,254 plate appearances while batting third rank No. 3 alltime among players who played the majority of their careers as shortstops, trailing only one contemporary (Ripken) and one player who came later and eventually moved to shortstop (Alex Rodriguez); those are also more plate appearances than any shortstop has ever logged batting fourth (except, again, for A-Rod).
• Among shortstops with at least 300 stolen bases -- Larkin had 379 -- he is one of only six who also hit at least 100 home runs. His hero, Concepcion, is the only one of the other five who predated Larkin (with 101 homers), while the other five (A-Rod, Jeter, Jimmy Rollins and Rafael Furcal) all came later.
"To me, he changed the way teams drafted shortstops," Ken Griffey Jr., Larkin's former Reds teammate and a future Hall of Famer himself, told
"Teams started looking at shortstops with a little more power, guys there were bigger and stronger and more athletic than the typical shortstop. You used to get these short, little guys who would hit eighth and just slap at it. Barry changed all that and how teams draft. You don't see shortstops who are 5-foot-6, 5-foot-8, and 160 pounds. These guys are 6-1 and 200 pounds. They're not batting eighth. They're batting 2-3-4-5."
Larkin was such a good athlete that legendary Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler had recruited him to play safety -- and Larkin's older brother, Mike, had also been recruited to play football at Michigan before opting to play at Notre Dame, where he became a captain -- though Schembechler chose to redshirt Larkin as a freshman.
That gave him a chance to join the baseball team and play only one sport for the first time in his life. (He had also played basketball at Cincinnati's Moeller High and said he had an offer to play that sport at the University of Maryland.)
"I was a better football player than a baseball player at the time," Larkin recalled. "And that was influential because I just worked on my baseball talent, just that alone. And that was an eye-opener because I got so much better."
His football coach never forgot.
One day a man surreptitiously walked up to the Michigan baseball practice field and began heckling Larkin at shortstop.
"It was Bo Schembechler," Larkin said, laughing at the memory.
"Bo always told me he would strike me out, anyway," Larkin said. "That was Bo's way of saying, `Congratulations kid, you did it.'"
What Larkin did was help usher in the new era of shortstop as all-around player.