Some background on why Barry Larkin got my Hall of Fame vote. In 1997, the ballpark in Cincinnati was more than a bit ratty. The ballclub that played there wasn’t much better. In that way, they seemed to fit each other.
I was passing through from a professional standpoint, on my way from Los Angeles to New York, spending seven months covering the Reds for the Cincinnati Enquirer at what had become Cinergy Field.
The team didn’t win much, didn’t draw many, fired a manager (Ray Knight), and was largely irrelevant except for the fact Deion Sanders had a part-time job with the Dallas Cowboys, Aaron Boone arrived to play a handful of games with brother Bret, and Pete Rose Jr. got his first and only big league at-bats.
When general manager Jim Bowden introduced me to owner Marge Schott, she held out her hand until Bowden got to the part about me being with the Enquirer, at which point she snatched back her paw, spat, “Ewww, the Enquirer,” turned her back and stormed away.
I was young and eager and probably took myself too seriously, and by the end of the season Marge – as it turned out – wasn’t alone among the Reds to prefer I just go away.
There was, however, one very good reason to be in Cincinnati that summer, just as there was any summer from 1986 to 2004, no matter the conditions of the stadium or team. Or the owner.
Larkin was royalty. He bled elegance, sweated dignity. Older players deferred to him. Young players followed him around. He held himself different, played the game different, and expected the same around him.
There’s an old saying among ball writers that goes something like, “I can’t define a Hall of Fame player, but I know one when I see one.”
It’s no way to cast a Hall of Fame ballot, of course, but that was Larkin – an All-Star, an MVP, a Gold Glover, a World Series champion – and yet the title that might have been most important to him was this: captain.
Larkin played only 73 games in 1997 because of injuries, so in that summer had only 71 of his 2,340 hits and four of his 198 home runs and 14 of his 379 steals. Pokey Reese played more games at shortstop than he did. Chris Stynes had more RBIs. Deion hit more home runs.
And yet in a fractured and lost summer, Larkin was the Reds. He was their composure and their conscience. He was their stability at shortstop, in their lineup and then on their bench.
He always was, too.
You know how the Dodgers’ Matt Kemp held together a thready franchise and a desperate city last summer and should have been MVP for it?
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That was Larkin for plenty of summers. In 19 seasons – all with the Reds – he played for nine managers. He went to the playoffs twice. He grew up in a baseball city, until it wasn’t.
That’s not enough for the dais at Cooperstown, but it might get you the last couple blocks. When I considered the era he played in, who he was, the numbers he amassed at shortstop, the way he played the position, and the number of seasons he did all that, he got my vote.
The game needs more like him. They won’t all be icons. They won’t all be Hall of Famers. But Larkin is, and the Hall – and Cincinnati – is fortunate to have him.
Thirty minutes after the ballot was announced Monday afternoon, Larkin was asked if he carried an image of himself as a ballplayer. Like, what is the essence of Barry Larkin?
“I don’t think there is one,” he said.
Earlier, he’d run through his list of people who’d helped put him here. He’d named his parents, his Little League and high school coaches, and coaches at Michigan, including Bo Schembechler.
He’d singled out Bowden, who “challenged me,” and Eric Davis, a great teammate, and Buddy Bell, who “made me smell the grass at Dodger Stadium,” and Pete Rose, who taught him about hustle and playing with pain, and Dave Concepcion, who mentored him.
“A complementary player,” he said. “I don’t think there was one standout part of my game.”
Unless you counted all of them, from 2 p.m. until midnight.
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Maybe, he said, had there been a camera in the clubhouse, or in the dugout, or in a hotel room where he’d talk some rookie down from the trauma of three strikeouts and a game-ending error, maybe that would be the image.
“Maybe that’s the picture that represents who I am,” he said, “and who I was as a player.”
Anymore, the Hall of Fame could use a man who was greater than the sum of his statistics, because it seems those can’t be trusted anymore. And Barry Larkin gave more of himself than he took.
In that way, they fit each other.
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