I wear a lot of pride when I put on that "C". I don't know if guys who aren't from Cincinnati feel the same thing.
- Barry Larkin
Since 1869, when George Wright was unequaled as the top player in the nascent professional game through the exploits of players like Brandon Phillips and Ken Griffey Jr., the history of the Cincinnati Reds has been replete with some of the finest talents to ever grace a baseball field. Of all the stars who have donned the hometown colors, many have shined more brightly but none more completely than Barry Larkin, the local product who anchored Reds teams from his shortstop position for nearly two decades.
There wasn't anything that Barry Larkin could not do well on a baseball field. He could hit (.295 lifetime average), hit for power (he belted 33 home runs in 1996), run (379 career stolen bases) and was an excellent defensive player (a three-time Gold Glove winner). Barry Larkin was the definition of a five-tool player. In Reds history, Edd Roush hit for a higher average but lacked Larkin's power. Frank Robinson was a better power hitter but did not possess Larkin's speed or throwing arm. Johnny Bench redefined standards for catchers but, as accomplished as he was, he did not reach base or hit for average with the consistency Larkin demonstrated. Joe Morgan's overall abilities may have exceeded Larkin's, but he spent only eight seasons with the Reds and had the benefit of playing on one of the great teams in the history of the game. And no one would argue that the venerable Pete Rose was anything like a five-tool player. The majesty of Rose's statistical achievements were based on an unprecedented combination of will, desire, durability and enough skill to turn a good player into a great one.
Barry Larkin was a great player naturally who became an even better player as his career progressed, and he stands as the most complete player in club history. In August 2007, Reds fans acknowledged Larkin's special place in the pantheon of Reds greats by making him their overwhelming choice to join the Reds Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. Indeed, the mere appearance of Larkin's name on the ballot seemed to make the results of the fan vote a foregone conclusion.
While Larkin's selection may have been a certainty, his development into one of the longest-tenured and very best players in Reds history was not. It may be difficult to believe in retrospect, but when Larkin first joined the organization, his claim on the starting shortstop position was anything but assured. Larkin faced stiff competition for the job from a player that, if he has not been forgotten by Reds fans, has long ago been relegated to the status of being the answer to a pretty good trivia question: What was the name of the guy who almost beat Larkin out at shortstop?
Winning the Job: The Reds first tried to bring Barry Larkin into the fold in 1982, when they selected him in the second round of the June Draft following Larkin's senior season at Moeller High School, the same school that graduated Ken Griffey Jr. in 1987. Larkin opted for college instead of turning pro and spent the next three years at the University of Michigan, a tenure which included two Big Ten Most Valuable Player awards and a spot on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team. Drafted again by the Reds in June 1985 (this time in the first round), Larkin chose to sign and began a rapid ascent through the Reds' Minor League system.
Two years before Larkin was signed, the Reds had selected a high school infielder named Kurt Stillwell in the first round of the 1983 Draft. By the time Larkin joined the organization, Stillwell was ensconced at shortstop with the Reds' Triple-A affiliate in Denver and showed all the signs of being ready to make the leap to the parent club.
In 1986, Stillwell was promoted to the Reds and struggled mightily against big league pitching. By August of 1986, Larkin's performance forced the Reds' hand, and he was called up to Cincinnati for the first time. Arriving at Riverfront Stadium less than an hour before the start of the Reds' game against the Giants on Aug. 13, Larkin (wearing No. 15) was inserted as a pinch-hitter in the fifth inning and drove in the first run of his career on a groundout to short. Larkin's performance over the balance of the season did nothing to end the "shortstop of the future" debate, as Stillwell also played well when he returned to the club in September. The quality of their play only served to make the Reds giddy at the prospect that they had so much talent at one position and gave rise to thoughts of whether it would be Stillwell or Larkin who would best be served by moving to second base or moving on altogether.
In the spring of 1987, Reds manager Pete Rose officially declared the shortstop position "up for grabs," and Larkin and Stillwell embarked on a spring-long competition for the position. The competition ebbed and flowed with Larkin taking a lead that some Reds veterans thought he had from the beginning. Incumbent shortstop and Big Red Machine mainstay Dave Concepcion stated flatly that Larkin "SHOULD" be the Reds shortstop, and pitcher Tom Browning predicted that Larkin would be the Reds' shortstop "for the next 10 years." On April 3, Rose finally announced that the spring competition was over and that Larkin would be the Opening Day shortstop. Stillwell made the club as well but began the season on the bench. Appearing in the first of his 16 Opening Day contests, Larkin, with numerous family members in attendance, almost homered in his first at-bat and succeeded in doing so in his second at-bat with a two-run shot to left field.
Both Larkin and Stillwell spent the balance of the season with the Reds. Larkin's play was erratic at times, and his overall numbers were not particularly impressive. Stillwell spelled Larkin at short but played more games at second and third, the clearest indication yet that the Reds saw Barry Larkin as their shortstop. After the season, any lingering debate was put to rest when Stillwell was traded to the Royals. An All-Star in 1988, Stillwell ended up with a solid nine-year big league career. But for Reds fans, his legacy is rooted in what could have been. If the Reds had gone with Stillwell over Larkin, one of the greatest players in Reds history might have made his name in another uniform.
Becoming a Star: In many ways, the 1988 season set the template for a "typical" Barry Larkin season. Sporting uniform No. 11 that would become so familiar so quickly (it had been Stillwell's number), Larkin was selected for his first All-Star team as a reserve on the basis of what became his trademark combination of good hitting, speed and outstanding fielding. Ozzie Smith, the longstanding incumbent All-Star shortstop was an idol of Larkin's who, like most shortstops, had built his career around defense. Larkin's play in 1988 heralded a changing of the guard at the position in the National League. Though it wasn't until 1993 that Larkin unseated Smith as the fan's All-Star choice, people throughout baseball acknowledged that Larkin was emerging as the league's pre-eminent shortstop. Said Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog in February of 1989: "He's going to be the best. He's going to hit 20 homers every year. He hits .300 and never strikes out. All-Star balloting is a popularity contest, but he really could surpass Ozzie Smith." Echoing Herzog's sentiment, Pete Rose said, "When Ozzie Smith retires, Larkin will be baseball's best shortstop. Barry is already the best offensive shortstop and probably the best all-around shortstop."
The "all-around" stipulation Rose affixed to his description of Larkin is ultimately what separated him not only from Smith, but from all other shortstops in baseball. At the dawn of the 1990s, Baltimore's Cal Ripken Jr. was the only shortstop who could boast of a more impressive combination of hitting and defense than Larkin, and Ripken did not possess Larkin's speed. Larkin distinguished himself not only from other shortstops but from all players. In an August 1991 Sports Illustrated survey of Major League general managers, Larkin was the runaway choice out of the entire pool of active players as the player they would choose to start a team with.
As the decade progressed, Larkin further cemented his status as one of the game's elite players, culminating in his Most Valuable Player season of 1995 and his record-setting 30-30 season of 1996. Satisfying though all of the personal accolades were, they paled in comparison to the satisfaction Larkin derived from winning -- a feeling that eluded him more often than not.
That Championship Season: The Reds of the mid-to-late 1980s were a team that was always competitive but that never managed to win. A string of four straight second-place finishes ended in 1989 when the Pete Rose gambling controversy and numerous injuries to key players sent the Reds reeling to fifth place. Based on the results of the previous year, expectations for the 1990 Reds were not terribly high. The team was young and in need of a clubhouse leader. Larkin assumed the role in the best way he knew how: He led by example.
The Reds got off to a fast start and held on to win the club's first division title since 1979. The surprise first-place finish was but a prelude to the Reds' run through the playoffs: a six-game victory over the favored Pirates in the League Championship Series and a stunning sweep of the heavily-favored A's in the World Series. Throughout this most improbable of championship seasons, Larkin's performance and attitude served as a model for the rest of the team. "I've seen [his leadership] emerge as the summer progressed," said Lou Piniella, who was hired to manage the Reds after the conclusion of the 1989 season. "I've seen a handful of guys who've emerged as leaders here. But Barry's in there every day. He plays an important position. He's one of our most productive players. People look up to him, respect him. And you know what? The bigger the game, the better he plays."
Larkin hit .353 in the sweep of Oakland and five years later, batted .385 in the Reds' Division Series victory over the Dodgers and .389 in the Reds' loss to the Braves in the LCS. These would be the only seasons during which the Reds would reach the postseason in Larkin's 19 years with the club. The Reds were contenders several times, most notably in 1994 -- when the players' strike ended the season with the Reds in first place -- and in 1999, when the team fell one game short of a Wild Card berth.
Over most of the nearly two decades of Larkin's career, however, the Reds' on-field performance was as erratic as its off-the-field situation was tumultuous. Larkin played for nine field managers and four general managers during his tenure, and the club had to grapple not only with Pete Rose's banishment but also the suspensions of owner Marge Schott, who was eventually forced to relinquish principal ownership of the team. With changes in leadership came numerous changes in direction that resulted in frequent player turnover and general clubhouse instability. Through it all, Larkin remained something of a constant, the de facto captain of the Reds for most of his career and the officially designated captain from 1997 until his retirement after the 2004 season. There was Larkin, mentoring young players, serving as the face of the franchise through good days and bad, playing at a level few players have reached, let alone sustained.
Larkin's Legacy: As unpredictable as the Reds could be over the course of Barry Larkin's career, so too was Larkin's physical well-being. Looking for a chink in the armor of a player who otherwise seemed to emerge from central casting, one need look no farther than the games-played column on the back of a Larkin baseball card. Due to a host of injuries too numerous to count, Larkin played in 150 games or more only four times in his career. Much of the toll exacted on his body can be attributed to the unforgiving Astroturf of Riverfront Stadium, a surface Larkin played on for the bulk of his career.
It is the injuries and the games lost to them that put an unavoidable qualifier on Larkin's career. Without them, there would be no debate as to where Larkin stands among the best to ever play the game. With them, many argue that his career numbers do not stack up to baseball's all-time greats. What cannot be debated is that, when he was healthy, Barry Larkin was the elite shortstop of his generation and one of the finest overall players in the game for the better part of two decades. For those who can only define greatness through the prism of accumulated statistics, Larkin may not compare favorably to players whose bodies did not betray them with the frequency that Larkin's betrayed him.
But the definition of true greatness cannot be found in numbers alone. For Reds fans, true greatness was in evidence every time Larkin reached the deep groundball that you knew he couldn't reach and making the throw to first for the out that you knew he couldn't make. True greatness was watching him score from second on a wild pitch. True greatness was watching him belt five home runs in two games. True greatness was watching one clutch hit after another fly off of his bat and bounce safely in the outfield, driving in crucial run after crucial run. True greatness was watching his celebratory backflip high above the Riverfront turf that served as the perfect exclamation to the Reds' first pennant in 14 years.
For Reds fans, true greatness was Barry Larkin -- a player who gave expression to that overused adjective in every way a ballplayer can.
In 2012, Barry Larkin became just the tenth player or manager inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame as a Cincinnati Red. Also in 2012, Larkin became only the 10th player or manager in Reds history honored with the retirement of his uniform number.