Greatness of Larkin's storied career stretches well beyond his numbers
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Barry Larkin was always where he needed to be. In a 19-year career filled with impressives -- 12 All Star appearances, nine Silver Sluggers, three Gold Gloves, an MVP -- right time, best place was always his forte.
Need a hitter to get things rolling for Eric Davis and Paul O'Neill? Bat Larkin leadoff. Need someone to drive in runs? Bat Larkin third. Need a base stolen, a runner advanced or a memorable defensive play? Larkin, Larkin and Larkin. He entered the Hall of Fame Sunday not because he did one thing especially brilliantly, but because he did them all very well.
Larkin was the honor roll student, not the valedictorian. He was the three-sport star, not Mister Basketball. If he were a mechanic, you'd trust him with your brakes and your tires, but maybe not the cylinders of your Maserati. He was a guy best appreciated up close and daily, because his numbers rarely popped your eyes. The year he was the Most Valuable Player of the National League, 1995, Larkin drove in all of 66 runs. He hit 15 homers, he didn't score 100 runs.
That year, Colorado's Dante Bichette hit .340 with 40 homers and 128 driven in. He finished second in the voting.
Larkin had to be seen to be believed, because he did lots of game-within-the-game stuff. He was a vault of intangibles. The Big Things in his career -- the awards, the 30-30 season of 1996 -- were never as vital as the Little Things.
Larkin never missed a chance to advance a runner. He never stole an extraneous base. He never struck out more than 69 times in a season. He had a career on-base percentage of .371. Defensively, he was rarely out of position. He could be balletic. Vintage Larkin was Barry behind second base, in short centerfield, lunging for a ground ball, stabbing it, then throwing back across his body to first base.
Larkin was the Reds captain, a charge he never took lightly. He played for some of the best minds and biggest egos in the game. Pete Rose, Lou Piniella and Davey Johnson knew what they knew. Each looked to Larkin for clubhouse glue. Piniella named him captain; Johnson has called Larkin the best player he ever managed.
Larkin spent his entire career where he grew up, in Cincinnati. He took less money on a contract to stay in town. He rejected a trade to the New York Mets in 2000, because the Mets would not give him a multiyear deal, and he didn't want to uproot his family.
Larkin was a confident player, to the extent that when he and Kurt Stillwell were competing for the shortstop job in 1986, he walked into Pete Rose's office and said, "I like Kurt Stillwell, but if you don't make me your shortstop, you're making a big mistake. I'm the shortstop here for the next 15 years.''
A year earlier, when Larkin was in Class AAA, a Reds front office type told him he didn't have the arm to play shortstop in the major leagues. "Then trade me,'' Larkin said.
He was never cocky, though. On Friday night, he was having the same discussion with Davis, a close friend, that they'd had 20 years earlier. "I'm a complementary player,'' Larkin told Davis.
"You're in the Hall of Fame,'' said Davis. "There are no complementary players in the Hall of Fame.''
If you write sports long enough, it becomes easy to recognize the athletes who were raised well. They look you in the eye. They're respectful and thoughtful. They're never calling their agents at 3 o'clock in the morning, for bail money. Barry Larkin's parents are products of the racially charged deep South of the 1950s, when education was one of the few things that couldn't be taken from them.
Robert Larkin grew up in Meridian, Miss., where he was judged a "smart n-----'' by a police officer who had graded Robert's written driving test. Shirley Larkin lived in segregated Houston, where the only time she saw white people was "in town or on the bus.'' She recalled recently that buses in Houston had a movable bar attached to the ceiling. It was the official line of separation between front and back, white and black. The driver adjusted it depending on how many riders of each race he expected ride a certain route.
The elder Larkins attended Xavier University in New Orleans, which at the time served, as Shirley Larkin recalled, "Indians and Negroes.'' Each graduated in 1960. So when it came time for Barry to choose between the Reds and the University of Michigan, they cheered when he opted for Michigan.
It wasn't an easy decision for Larkin. A Reds official showed up personally at Larkin's home in Silverton, a middle-class suburb 10 miles north of downtown Cincinnati, to announce they'd drafted him in the second round. After he left, Shirley found Barry in his bedroom, practically in tears. "Mom,'' he said, "I want to go to college. You've always stressed that. But these people are offering us so much money. We need this money.''
Shirley Larkin said, "Have we had money all this time?''
No, Barry said.
"We don't need this money. If you can't tell that guy no when he comes back,'' said Shirley, "your father will.'' A few days later, Reds scouting director Larry Doughty showed up at the Larkin home, making his final pitch. Doughty asked Shirley Larkin for a Bible, from which he read a passage about taking advantage of opportunities.
"I'm going to Michigan'' came Barry's response. Three years later, Cincinnati drafted Larkin again, this time in Round 1.
He was a three-sport star at the legendary Moeller High School in Cincinnati, and did not hone his focus on baseball until he told Bo Schembechler he would not be playing football. Schembechler responded by going to baseball workouts and calling Larkin a "sissy.''
Larkin went from high school to the 1984 Olympics to being a first-round pick, in three years. "I was a football player, playing baseball,'' he said Saturday. "My learning curve was pretty steep,''
In one area, it showed. "I never thought he'd make it,'' Johnny Bench said Saturday. "I thought his arm would break.'' Larkin had a different, not quite fundamental delivery to first base. "He was putting a lot of pressure on his elbow. And here he is today, in the Hall. Obviously, I'm not a scout.''
"A sense of responsibility and accountability,'' Larkin said. Someone had asked him what it was like, playing 19 years in the same city, that also happened to be his hometown. Larkin had good professional guidance when he joined the Reds as a rookie in 1986: Rose, Buddy Bell, Tony Perez, Dave Concepcion, even Dave Parker. Each made an indelible mark on Larkin and how he thought and played the game.
He spent a career paying it forward. Just as Concepcion groomed Larkin, knowing that Larkin would take his job, Larkin groomed players such as Pokey Reese, to take his. Parker and Bell bought the rookie Larkin suits in New York. Larkin returned that gesture over and over, with other rookies. At the end of his last season, 2004, Larkin presented the home clubhouse attendant, Rick Stowe, with a new Mercedes sedan.
Sunday, Larkin got the ultimate reward. The Baseball Hall of Fame is full of players with big numbers. There is no number for playing the game properly, though. Larkin did that, for close to two decades. There is greatness in goodness. It's memorialized on the newest plaque in Cooperstown, in a sunny, two-story rotunda at the Hall of Fame.