Larkin humble as ever after Hall of Fame calls
Be he ever so humble, there is nobody like Barry Larkin.
On his mammoth day Monday, the day he was introduced as the only player voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers Association of America this year, the former Cincinnati Reds shortstop should have been eating filet mignon. Instead, he was chewing humble pie.
But that always has been Larkin’s credo and modus operandi.
How many Hall of Famers have you heard say this?: “I always considered myself a complementary player, somebody who would do things beyond the Xs and Os of hits, homers or stolen bases, somebody who did what it took to help the other players on my team.”
How many Hall of Famers have you heard say, when asked what defines him, say anything like this?: “Not one single thing pops up, not one single image. Maybe if somebody took a picture of me talking to players on the field or in the clubhouse or in the hotels about how to be a professional, they might say, ‘Oh, that was another part of his game.’ ”
And it was, a deep part of his contribution during his 19 years with the Reds. He was the player teammates followed, respected and admired — as a person and as a player.
“The people I admire most starts at home — my mom and my father,” he said. “They both had strong character and strong morals and they are the reason I am the type of person and player that I am.”
What most people don’t know is that Larkin went to the University of Michigan on a football scholarship, ostensibly to play for legendary Bo Schembechler.
“Bo recruited my older brother, Mike, and was in my house,” Larkin said. “Mike went to Notre Dame with Coach Gerry Faust and Bo told my mother, ‘I’m taking your next son to Michigan.’ ”
And he did. But he told Larkin he would be red-shirted his freshman year and gave Larkin permission to play baseball. Larkin never played a down of football.
“That was the first time I ever concentrated on one sport instead of three,” he said. “I was a better football player than baseball player, but concentrating that one full year on baseball . . . that made me a better player.”
Schembechler told him: “I could strike you out. And you’ll be back. You’ll miss football. Nobody comes to Michigan to play baseball.”
He was born a shortstop and will die as a shortstop, but there was a short period when the Reds wanted to change him to second base.
It lasted two games at Triple-A Indianapolis. When two balls rolled through his legs, Larkin said: “That’s it. No more second base.”
Larkin was Triple-A Rookie of the Year and Triple-A Player of the Year at Indianapolis. But, he said, one day former farm director Chief Bender (not the former pitcher) called him to his office.
“I was excited. I thought I was being promoted to the big leagues,” Larkin said. “Instead, he told me, ‘We don’t think you have the tools for shortstop and want you to play second base.' ”
The real reason was that a couple of years before they signed Larkin, telling him, “You’ll be a shortstop,” they drafted another shortstop in the first round. His name was Kurt Stillwell, and the Reds thought he was the shortstop of the future.
Larkin proved them wrong, wrong, wrong. The Reds eventually traded Stillwell to Kansas City.
“And that showed me the Reds really did want me,” Larkin said. “And there was a nice gesture, too. I was wearing No. 15 at the time and Stillwell had No. 11, the number I’d always worn. When he was traded, he gave me a piece of gold jewelry with the No. 11 on it. That was a nice gesture.”
Larkin was asked if he thinks his predecessor, Dave Concepcion, belongs in the Hall of Fame. As he did so often during his stay in Cincinnati, Larkin took the diplomatic high road.
“I don’t have a vote, so I’ll leave that to others,” he said. “I’m a rookie (Hall of Famer) myself.”
But Larkin then extolled Concepcion.
“The first time I met Concepcion was when I was still at Michigan and the Reds drafted me,” he said. “The Reds were in Detroit for an interleague game, and I visited the clubhouse in old Tiger Stadium.”
“Dave Parker (another Cincinnati native and a Reds outfielder at the time) grabbed me by the arm and led me to Concepcion’s locker and said, ‘Here’s the guy who is going to take your job.’
“I didn’t know about Parker’s sense of humor and thought, ‘What is this guy doing?’ Davey asked to see my hands, which were rough and calloused and he said, 'He won’t be taking my job.' ”
Then Concepcion helped Larkin take his job.
“I idolized Davey growing up,” said Larkin, a graduate of Cincinnati's famed Moeller High School. “He was part of The Big Red Machine that I grew up with.”
When Larkin showed up at spring training, Concepcion took him aside and taught him things.
“Especially how to make that bounce throw that he made famous," Larkin said. "I will say this: Davey was the best shortstop I ever saw. And he took time out of his day to help me when he knew that someday I might take his job. It is incredible to realize that two guys, Concepcion and I, were the only two shortstops the Reds had for almost 40 years.”
There is another offbeat story about Larkin. He went to school to learn Spanish so he could better communicate with his Latin teammates.
“Because I idolized Concepcion and Tony Perez, I thought, ‘The only things they can do that I can’t do is speak Spanish.' So I learned Spanish,” Larkin said.
As one of only two team captains in Reds history — Concepcion was the other — Larkin's Spanish-language skills gained him even more respect.
And it helped on the field, too.
“Second baseman Mariano Duncan and I used to converse in Spanish when there were runners on second base,” Larkin said. “Some of them would look at me funny, wondering, ‘Is he really speaking Spanish?’ A couple of times it enabled Duncan to sneak behind the runner and pick him off.”
Asked who they were, Larkin said, “I’d rather not embarrass them.”
That, in a Hall of Fame nutshell, is Barry Larkin.