Excuse me for a personal aside: When I was 27 years old, I was hired to become sports columnist for The Cincinnati Post, a now defunct afternoon paper. The Post had this storied history, all these great people, it was a magical place. I’m actually in Cincinnati right now working on a story (and I just had some Skyline Chili) so, yes, I’m feeling a bit nostalgic.
In any case, I was utterly unprepared for the job. I had been columnist at The Augusta Chronicle for three years, and that was a great job too but completely different. Everything was golf, colleges and local. I would go to Atlanta now and again for MLB and NFL, but nobody knew me there and nobody in Atlanta read or cared what I wrote and it was just different. Now I was in a city with Major League Baseball. I had lots of ideas about what I wanted to do and, at the same time, no idea what I was supposed to do.
Mercifully, I worked with some good people — Jeff Horrigan was the excellent Reds beat writer then, Mark Tomasik an amazing sports editor, Todd Jones and Bill Koch and others were always on the lookout for me — and they guided me through, sometimes by just pulling me through.
And, just as much, that Cincinnati Reds team just was an amazing collection of people. I know people say that about teams all the time, but it really was true about the 1994, 1995, 1996 Reds. Every guy in there, it seemed, was fantastic to deal with. They taught me a little bit about what Major League Baseball was all about. Hal Morris … Reggie Sanders … Bret Boone … Jose Rijo … Kevin Mitchell … David Wells … Ray Knight … Davey Johnson … they all went way out of their way to answer my silly and pointless questions and steer me away from my poorer instincts. Actually, looking back, you know who was absolutely great to me? Deion Sanders. Baseball Deion worked hard and stayed out of people’s way and would help me out all the time. But, really, they all were great. Sure, it helped that the team was winning, but there was something special about that clubhouse. It was a great place to grow up.
All the while, I have to say, Barry Larkin was kind of a mystery to me.
Oh, I liked Larkin. You couldn’t help but like the guy — you still can’t. He was (as he is) smart and thoughtful and interesting. But there was always something just a little bit distant about him. This wasn’t just true for sportswriters. Teammates felt it too. Barry Larkin always seemed to be a little bit more serious than the others, as if he was walking around with a little bit more responsibility on his shoulders, a little bit more pressure weighing him down.
I think it was, at least in part, because he grew up in Cincinnati. It’s a different thing being the star player in your hometown … especially a hometown like Cincinnati which has such a storied baseball history. And Barry Larkin wasn’t just from Cincinnati, he was like Cincinnati royalty. He had played at Moeller High School, one of the city’s centerpiece schools. His brother Byron was a superstar basketball player at hometown Xavier. Barry grew up with the Big Red Machine — he was 11 when they won in 1975; Larkin was infused with their story — and then the Reds took him with the fourth overall pick ten years later (two spots ahead of Barry Bonds) to help bring back those days. You got the sense he took that all to heart.
This is not to say Larkin was sullen or withdrawn … it wasn’t that at all. I feel like I’m not describing it well. He was just … purposeful. Resolute. Always looking forward. Baseball was his job, and he was the ultimate professional. If you wanted to get a funny quote, you went to Rijo or Wells. If you wanted to gauge the team’s mood, you went to Morris or Sanders. If you wanted to go offbeat, you went to Boone or Mitchell (or any of about 10 different players).
And you went to Larkin when you wanted the official word. He would listen to your question, determine if it was in his best interest to answer, then carefully give an answer that sent out the precise message he wanted sent out. Usually that message was nothing at all. Sometimes, though, he wanted it known that everybody needed to pick up their intensity. Sometimes he wanted it known that there was too much negativity from outsiders. Sometimes he wanted it known that the media was getting everything wrong. Sometimes he just wanted everybody just needed to chill.
He was apart. Every now and again, he might be in a joking mood. Every now and again, he might be in a leave-me-alone mood. Mostly, though, he was just a step away, carrying the burden, being serious about things so others did not have to be.
Larkin was such a marvelous player. You already know how he used all five tools — he hit for average (a .295 lifetime average which was .300 until his last four injury-plagued season), he hit for power (he hit 33 homers one year), he could really run (he stole 379 bases and was caught just 77 times), he could throw and play spectacular defense (three Gold Gloves).
And beyond that he was such an astute player. Like Jeter. Like Pujols. His brain was in motion all the time.
In 1995, his MVP year, I probably watched him play 70 or 80 games live. And after a while, I started to notice (probably Jeff Horrigan pointed it out) that he seemed to have a good at-bat every single time there was an important situation. He didn’t always get hits, but he always had a good at-bat. I realize that’s kind of a silly and unreal thing to say, not unlike saying that Joe DiMaggio never threw to the wrong base. Even deities make mistakes. But I started to keep track. I probably have those notes in a box somewhere. Whenever there was a moment — close score, men on base, team needing a spark — I would pay special attention and write it down. And it seemed like I NEVER wrote down, “Larkin: One pitch grounder to short” or “Larkin, overswing, pop-up to shallow outfield.”
No, the notebook filled up with stuff like this:
Larkin: Six pitch-at bat, ended with opposite field single to score two runs.
Larkin: Eight pitch at-bat, line drive right at the shortstop, hit the ball hard.
Larkin: Eleven pitch at-bat, worked a walk to load the bases.
Larkin: Five-pitch at-bat, slapped grounder through hole between short and third to score a run.
These days, you can easily look up how Larkin did in big moments. In 1995, Larkin hit .348 in high-leverage situations, he slugged .653 with runners in scoring position and two outs, he hit .397 in late-and-close situations. But those are small sample sizes and we’re getting into that murky clutch hitting category. What I remember was not the numbers or the results but how determined and tenacious he was in those situations. I would watch him and think of a classic story about Jackie Robinson from Roger Kahn’s “The Boy’s of Summer.”
A few innings later, as (Sal) Maglie continued to overwhelm the Brooklyn hitters, Pee Wee Reese said, “Jack, you got to do something here.”
“Yeah,” Robinson said.
The bat boy overheard the whispered conversation, and just before Jack stepped in to hit, he said in a voice of anxiety, “Don’t you do it. Let one of the others do it. You do enough.”
Robinson took his stance, bat high. He felt a certain relief. Let somebody else do it, for a change.
“Come on Jack,” Reese’s voice carried from the dugout. “We’re counting on you.”
Robinson took a deep breath. Somebody else? What somebody else? Hodges? Snider? Damn, there wasn’t anybody else.
I think that was the same sense of responsibility Larkin felt.
He did have trouble staying healthy, which often prevented him from putting up the sort of numbers that make jaws drop. Only four times in his career did he play 150 games in a season. In 1991, he might have been the best player in the league (.302/.378/.506, 20 homers, 24 steals, outstanding defense) but he only played 123 games. In 1995, his MVP season, he was just as good but only played 131 games (some games were taken away by the strike). In 1993, he hit .315 with a .394 on-base percentage, stole 14 of 15 bases, played his usual great defense, but only played 100 games. The career did have some of that in it.
But, when he was right, he did everything. And he did it with a sense of purpose that I still think about. Greatness comes in different shades and sizes, of course. With Larkin, it was weighty and important. You hear about players being naturals. Larkin had great talent, but he was no natural. He became one of the best shortstops of all time because he refused to be anything else.