Barry Larkin was already into his seventh season in the big leagues with the Reds by the time Brian O’Grady was born in 1992. Larkin had already helped the Reds win a World Series championship and had played in four All-Star Games. He also had been in the position O’Grady was standing in as the two conversed behind the batting cage during batting practice before a game at Dayton’s Fifth Third Field.
This time it was Larkin doing the talking, showing O’Grady, a 23-year-old outfield prospect with Cincinnati’s Class-A affiliate, nuances in his own batting stance in the hopes of driving home his point. O’Grady watched and listened, then went into the cage to implement Larkin’s advice.
When Larkin was 23, he was already playing for his hometown’s major league team. He was learning these same lessons on the field with the Reds from the likes of Buddy Bell, Ron Oester and Pete Rose. Now Larkin is passing on his knowledge as a roving instructor for the Reds.
Larkin retired from playing after the 2004 season, spending all 19 years of his career with the Reds. His Hall of Fame credentials — 2,340 hits, 441 doubles, 198 home runs, 379 stolen bases and a career slash line of .295/.371/.444 — were cemented in Cooperstown in 2012. He’s worked in and around the game since his playing days ended but this is the first time he’s had an official title with the Reds.
"We’ve been talking for a few years about me doing something more with the player development side with the Reds. I just felt it was time," said Larkin as he sat in the dugout in Dayton. "I just felt like now was a good time for me to get back into this on a more impactful, if you will, situation."
Roving instructors are exactly that for an organization. They go from affiliate to affiliate, working with players on whatever they need to work on. They file reports and then watch the progress. Joe Maddon, the manager of the Chicago Cubs, compared it to one aspect of raising a family.
"You get to go to each team and when you show up you’re normally really welcomed because it’s just for a five-day gig and people like seeing you and then you leave," said Maddon. "It’s almost like the grandchildren; you just give them back. That was one of my favorite jobs, was to be the roving hitting instructor and then field coordinator. It doesn’t get much better than that on the minor league level."
Larkin isn’t the only former Reds player now a member of the player development team. Bill Doran is the field coordinator. Darren Bragg coordinates outfielders and base running. Ken Griffey, Sr., is a part-time hitting instructor. Eric Davis, Mario Soto and Miguel Cairo are special assistants to general manager Walt Jocketty. Their duties include instructing in the minor leagues. Corky Miller retired last year after 16 pro seasons. He’s now coaching at Dayton under manager Jose Nieves but also spending time as a roving instructor working with catchers.
"I’ve been to every club, every place since April," said Miller, who on this particular day was back in Louisville working with the Triple-A club he played 10 seasons for. "In that aspect traveling around is different but once I get to the field everything is pretty much the same. Now I don’t have to make sure my belt is on or my spikes are tied or anything like that.
Miller’s experiences playing have shaped his teaching philosophy. In many ways he’s already been doing this job the past few seasons, only as a player. He and every other coach brings their own personalities and beliefs of the game to the job. Attention to detail is big for Miller.
"It’s little tiny things," said Miller. "It’s stuff that isn’t going to propel you to the next level but it’s good baseball stuff. Then you start getting good instincts. You start seeing that there are a lot more of those little things on a day-to-day basis that could help them think, ‘what else is there?’ You never know."
Still, whether it’s the minor league manager, that team’s hitting or pitching coach or a roving instructor, the message given to the player has to be consistent throughout the organization. There’s a plan for each player’s development and a way the organization wants him to do things. When that message is coming from a roving instructor, especially one with the credentials of a Larkin, it might just click with the player differently.
"The thing about Barry is just that he’s got this philosophy about everything," said Dayton left fielder Jimmy Pickens. "The philosophy is just so much more in-depth than maybe a coach because he’s just such a smart guy. He knows how to talk. Everything has to do with science. You can’t physically hit a ball if you’re not doing everything correctly. The way he talks is just so in-depth and you can tell he thinks about this stuff non-stop. You can tell it’s his life and it’s always been his life for so long. That’s the same with Eric Davis. He talks and he understands. He understands that everyone does it differently."
The Reds announced Larkin’s hiring on May 8. His first stop was at Double-A Pensacola. He went to Dayton and Louisville last week. His process, he said, for each visit is to first call the manager and find out from him what’s going on and what needs to be worked on.
His role isn’t to become Coach Supreme for the few days that he’s with a club.
"The payback is certainly seeing the smile of a guy that you’ve helped, that has figured it out, (and) that has some success," said Larkin. "The last couple of games we’ve been here the team has been swinging the bat pretty well and to see the guys just kind of look at me and wink, like you saw that, right? What’s really special is to come out here early and to see the introduction of a new kind of thought process. Not necessarily anything new from an X-O standpoint but just from a mentality standpoint, an approach standpoint and to see those guys take that and implement it, put it in the game, apply it in the game and have success with it."
Delino DeShields is in his seventh season with the Reds, his sixth as a minor league manager and his first season at Louisville. Larkin called him prior to visiting the Bats.
"A guy like Barry Larkin or Eric Davis or Billy Doran, guys that have big league experience and have been around the game for a long time, they should be able to teach anything about this game that they desire," said DeShields. "I’m flattered that Barry gave me a call and asked me, but at the same time when he comes in here I’m going to tell him ‘you do what you’ve got to do. You see something, you address it.’
"Communication is important, but at the same time I don’t feel like these guys should be put in a box. Barry shouldn’t just have to work with infielders, or just middle infielders. It’s baseball at the end of the day and these guys have seen it all and done it all. They have a lot to offer."
There’s a caveat for players when a roving instructor comes to town.
"Some try to do too much. They’re trying to impress," said Reds infield coach Freddie Benavides, who spent 15 seasons in the club’s minor league system, including six seasons as the field coordinator. "I always told them as a coordinator coming in, don’t impress me. You’ve got to impress the (coaches) that are with you every day. Those three guys that are here on a daily basis.
"Everyone reacts differently but you’ve got to be able to deal with it because when you come here and play in front of 20-, 30-, 40,000 and there are GMs in the stands every day, that’s different. You’ve got to be able to deal with it."
Larkin has been asked about possible managerial aspirations. He interviewed for the Tampa Bay opening last offseason. He was the manager of the Brazilian national team that played in the last World Baseball Classic. He downplays those questions. That’s not what he’s here for, he said.
He’s here for the Brian O’Grady and Jimmy Pickens across the organization’s minor league system.
"It’s funny because you get to talking to him and he’s just another nice guy," said O’Grady. "Instead of him being Barry Larkin the Hall of Famer and the athlete, it’s just Barry Larkin, a guy who is trying to help you out and trying to help you get better."