COOPERSTOWN, NY — The town hasn’t changed much in the last 150 years and a stroll down Main Street is a walk into America’s rural history, a town stuck in the 19th century.
The hotels and bed-and-breakfast homes usually have neither telephones nor television and the three-story hotels have wide porches with rocking chairs.
It’s a place where every baseball player who ever buttoned-up a major league uniform dreams of visiting at the end of his career to be enshrined into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
And it is where Barry Larkin was this weekend for his enshrinement after his illustrious 19-year career as shortstop/captain of the Cincinnati Reds.
When Larkin played baseball, stoicism was his nature — one could never tell whether things were going well or going badly because his expression never changed and his professionalism never changed.
It changed this weekend. A broad smile never leaves his face and it is evident he is Alice in Baseball Wonderland.
Before giving his induction speech Sunday, Larkin said even if he pinches himself, he can’t believe he is here and said, “I am so humbled and so excited. This is so incredible, and although I’m usually never at a loss for words I still can’t find the words to express my excitement.”
The real making of Barry Larkin may have begun before the 1990 season when Lou Piniella took over as manager of the Reds. His batting coach was Tony Perez, the former first baseman of The Big Red Machine, who was himself later inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Perez approached Piniella soon after Piniella became manager and said, “This team needs a leader, somebody to take command of the clubhouse and the team on the field. We have good young talent, but we need somebody to be the leader. And I think you should ask Barry Larkin to be that guy.”
That’s what Piniella did as, with apologies to Barbra Streisand, a star was born.
When spring training began in 1990, Piniella called Larkin into his office and said, “Barry, I know you are a heckuva a ballplayer. You’ve already proved that. But I need you to do some other things in here for us. I need you to be the leader.”
Larkin thought a moment, then began nodding affirmatively and said, “Lou, I think I can do that.” And he became that guy.
Other than Perez’s advice, Piniella thought it was a stupendous idea, “Because, truthfully, he was probably the only guy I ever managed who didn’t need a manager. He knew how to play the game. When you needed a hit behind the runner, he hit behind the runner. When you needed to steal base, he could steal a base. When you needed to hit a ball in the gap, he could do that. When you needed him to make a great play on defense, he could do that.
“He always made the right plays, always threw to the right base, he could run the bases, he could hit, he could hit for power — he could do it all. So, naturally, he was the guy.”
Indeed, he was. In 1990, the Reds won the National League pennant and stunned the baseball world by beating the Oakland A’s, powered by the Bash Brothers of Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco, in four straight games in the World Series.
“He just took over that team for me and led us to the world’s championship,” said Piniella. “I concur that he was the best leader I ever had. And what I liked about it is that he did it with class, didn’t do it with false rah-rah stuff. In addition, and then, on the field is where he exemplified what he talked about, doing himself what he told the players they needed to do.”
One of his teammates was Eric Davis, a five-tool player who was en route to Cooperstown himself before injuries interrupted and slowed down his career.
“Barry had the ability to adapt to any situation for which he was called upon,” said Davis. “I had the pleasure of watching him as a young player, when I was a young player, and watched him mature from a little shy kid to one of the greatest players ever to play the game.
“And I watched him do it with so much style and grace, and he truly represented what the Cincinnati Reds were all about at that time,” Davis added. “To say Barry is a better person off the field than he is on is an understatement. To know what kind of heart he had.”
Davis remembers that once Larkin was anointed the clubhouse keeper he would do anything to be respected.
“He didn’t know a word of Spanish, but he learned to speak it so that the Latin players wouldn’t feel like outsiders,” said Davis. “That’s how committed to the team he was.”
Davis called on the day Larkin first spoke after his election and Davis admonished him for calling himself a complementary player.
Larkin still believes that, that he was never a superstar and never a one-trick pony, just a thoroughbred who could do a lot of things.
“I used to call myself The Amoeba Man because I took on different roles,” he said. “I approached things differently depending on what was required of me batting first or second or third or fourth or fifth. And what was going on with the team.”
When Larkin arrived in the big leagues, a shortstop named Kurt Stillwell had arrived a year ahead of him and there was talk of turning Larkin into a second baseman.
He approached Rose and told him, “You know, you should put me in now because I’m going to be the shortstop here for the next 15 years.”
Rose put him in, but Larkin was wrong. He was the shortstop for the next 19 years and Stillwell was traded to Kansas City.
And that wasn’t brashness or cockiness. It was Larkin’s personality, “Never cocky, but very confident” is how he describes himself.
The reality is what the Hall of Fame is all about finally struck Larkin hard this weekend when current Hall of Famers welcomed him.
“I saw Al Kaline and he said, ‘Welcome, Barry,'” said Larkin. “I saw Bob Gibson and I said, ‘Hello, Mr. Gibson,’ and he said, ‘My name is Bob.’ And I thought, ‘Wow, OK, Bob.'”
Mike Schmidt asked me to tell Larkin he had another commitment and couldn’t make it, “Then he called me a few days ago and said, ‘I worked it out. I’ll be there,'” Larkin said. “Man, this is heady stuff.”
Larkin smiled and said, “I did invite President Obama, but I never heard back from him.”
Obama didn’t show up for the induction under a sweltering sun in a meadow next to the Clark Sports Center.
But TV/movie star Charlie Sheen, a lifelong Cincinnati Reds fan, did show up, wearing a Reds game cap with a 1990 World Series press pin attached to the hat.
He and 15,000 fans listened to Larkin’s 32-minute speech, mostly dedicated to thanking everybody who played a part in his career, including his family.
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His daughter Cymba sang the National Anthem, “And I was more nervous for her than I was about my speech,” Larkin said.
Larkin began his speech by screaming into the microphone, “I’m going to tell you guys something before I get started. You see all of us on stage, all nice and polished and looking dapper and calm and cool and collected. But I’m going to tell you what, this is un-stinking bee-lee-va-bull. Unbelievable.”
He made it two minutes into his speech before the tears began and he paused to look at fellow Hall of Famer Johnny Bench, sitting on the stage, “J.B., you told me I’d make it through this, but I might not.”
But he did, sniffling most of the way. He paid special tribute to teammates like Eric Davis, Dave Parker, Buddy Bell and his first manager, Pete Rose, “Who taught me to play this game and how to be a professional and how to do things right.”