CINCINNATI — The huge ’11’ engraved on the skin part of the Great American Ball Park infield behind second base told everybody that this weekend was special.
For most of 19 years, ’11’ was the uniform number worn by Cincinnati Reds shortstop Barry Larkin. After his retirement in 2004 the number disappeared from the roster. Equipment manager Rick Stowe, realizing how special Larkin was to the franchise, refused to issue the number for eight years.
On Saturday it became official — nobody ever again will wear ’11’ on a Cincinnati uniform. The Reds officially retired the number in a pre-game ceremony.
Larkin’s ’11’ joins the retired numbers of Fred Hutchins (1), Johnny Bench (5), Joe Morgan (8), Sparky Anderson (10), Dave Concepcion (13), Ted Kluszewski (18), Frank Robinson (20) and Tony Perez (24).
Larkin didn’t begin his career with the Reds wearing No. 11. He wore No. 15, but wanted his favored 11 that was worn by teammate Kurt Stillwell.
Larkin and Stillwell, like Larkin, a No. 1 draft choice, both played shortstop and it was suggested to Larkin that he move to second base to make room for Stillwell. One former Reds front office person told Larkin, “You’ll never make it at shortstop. Your position is second base.”
Larkin, though, refused to make the move and the team convinced Stillwell to make the move. But it wasn’t long before Stillwell was traded to Kansas City.
Before he left, Stillwell not only deeded No. 11 to Larkin, but he took off a gold pendant ’11’ he wore around his neck and gave it to Larkin.
There was another time Larkin couldn’t wear his coveted ’11.’ It was when he played baseball at the University of Michigan.
He matriculated to Ann Arbor to play football, but the legendary coach, Bo Schembechler, wanted to red shirt Larkin his freshman year. Larkin said that was OK, but could he play baseball the year he didn’t play football.
To his everlasting chagrin, Schembechler said yes. So Larkin, who couldn’t wear ’11’ because catcher Bill Freehan was wearing it, played baseball — and never looked back. He never again set foot on a football field, except on the old multi-purpose baseball/football stadiums. For Larkin, though, it was only baseball.
It is apropos that Larkin’s ’11’ will hang on a façade behind home plate next to the ’13’ worn by Concepcion.
As a Cincinnati native, Larkin was a gargantuan Reds fan and Concepcion was his idol.
“When I signed and went to spring training, I was in awe and I was in fear,” Larkin said. “Concepcion was my idol, my hero, the player I want to be. And there I was a guy trying to take his job.”
Larkin was stunned, though, when Concepcion took him aside and tutored him, taught him everything he knew. And eventually Larkin did take his job.
“I am forever grateful for what Concepcion did for me and I never forgot that,” Larkin said. “I tried to be the same kind of person with young players that he was with me.”
The Reds celebrated Larkin with a Barry Larkin weekend, including a Friday night Barry Larkin Fireworks show timed to the music of the Larkin era.
It was the finish to a wonderful weekend for Larkin, who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown the last weekend in July.
“I’ve had a lot of great opportunities this year, a lot of things have happened, a lot of recognition, which obviously has been fantastic,” Larkin said. “I was able to rekindle some relationships, which has been great as well. The whole thing has been fast. It has been detailed. It has been a lot of stuff, real good busy work.”
During his whirlwind first half of 2012, after he was named on 86 per cent of the ballots in his third year of Hall of Fame eligibility, Larkin consistently said he couldn’t wait for His Day in Cincinnati to thank the fans who witnessed his talented and professional presence for 19 years.
“It’s significant and it’s appropriate that this is the last piece of celebration that will happen this summer,” Larkin said. “Cooperstown was great. The whole summer was fantastic. It brings it a little more closer to home being here in Cincinnati and getting my number retired. I’m really not looking forward to next summer because this one has just been fantastic, one you hope will never end.”
His fame and his accomplishments in Cincinnati won’t be forgotten and now there is a constant reminder of Larkin’s legacy, the ’11’ hanging on the façade.