Larkin the quiet superstar

Cincinnati Reds shortstop Barry Larkin is headed to the Baseball Hall of Fame. (Reuters)

Cincinnati Reds shortstop Barry Larkin is headed to the Baseball Hall of Fame. (Reuters)

BILL LANKOFF, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:06 PM ET

Barry Larkin will go into the Hall of Fame the way he played the game: Quietly, with dignity, without controversy.

“He was always upbeat, positive, humble,” says Mike Cameron, his former high school coach. “You know, Barry hasn’t changed.”

If baseball had a Lady Byng Trophy, Larkin would be your candidate. He is, perhaps arguably, one of the 10 best shortstops in baseball history. But, having played in a small-media town, away from the glare of big city notoriety, he is also one of baseball’s best-kept secrets.

Yes, he was an All-Star 12 times, won three Gold Gloves, was named the National League Most Valuable Player in 1995 and added nine Silver Slugger Awards.

But he was also left in the shadows cast by the likes of Cal Ripken Jr., Ozzie Smith, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. When he played he didn’t get the recognition he deserved.

That will change when he is inducted Sunday into Cooperstown.

Not only will his mother and father be there, his teenage daughter, Cymber, will sing the national anthem.

“I’m really excited about it. It’s definitely something special, but I’ll be nervous as heck for her,” the former Reds shortstop said Tuesday on a conference call. “I’ve heard just about everybody in the world is stopping by.”

He goes in alone, the only player elected in balloting last winter by the Baseball Writers Association of America. That he should stand alone is apropos because Larkin was a player of singular talent and integrity. He redefined the position with an unprecedented combination of speed, power and defence.

He did so in an era that will be forever scarred by the advent of steroids. In a time when the bloom was coming off the Rose in Cincinnati, when a city’s fans desperately needed someone in whom to believe, Larkin quietly stepped into the baseball void.

When Lou Piniella took over as Cincinnati manager in 1990, he realized he had a championship-caliber team. But he needed someone to bring it together. He turned to Larkin.

“He was outstanding,” Piniella said recently. “You know, he learned Spanish so he could better communicate with his teammates. He was a quiet leader, but the players respected him. I cannot say enough about what he meant to the Reds. And me.”

Larkin would bat .353, leading the Reds to a sweep of the A’s in the World Series that year.

“He’s one of the smartest players I’ve ever managed. He knew the game so well. He studied the hitters and was always in the right position. His range as a shortstop was unbelievable.”

Larkin’s .295 lifetime batting average was 33 points higher than that of Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith, who was elected predominantly for his defence in 2002. Ripken, elected along with Gwynn in 2007, hit .277 as a shortstop.

He becomes the 48th Hall of Famer to have played an entire career for one team. His life story reads like something from a Hollywood script, reaching the majors to play for his hometown Reds. He married his long-time sweetheart and when he was elected to the Hall, his wife Lisa of 22 years, said it was like watching two decades melt away.

“He and I actually grew up together. I remember his face as a kid, outside playing in the yard. He has looked like that little boy for the last two days now,” she told a Cincinnati newspaper after Larkin got word he had been elected. “He can’t stop smiling. It’s so enjoyable to see how in awe he is about all this. He’s usually so calm and settled, but he’s just so excited.”

Larkin has left a legacy that has become an inspiration for a new generation. As news of his election came, players at his former high school, along with Cameron, greeted the news with applause in a classroom at Moeller High.

“If you were to tell me 42 years ago I was going to coach a Hall of Fame player I would have told you that you were nuts,” Coach Cameron told local media. “Golly, it was 30 years ago since he was here and it seems like yesterday.”

Sunday, Barry Larkin will finally get his due reward. No more living in the shadows. There will officially be no more doubt. Barry Larkin, like Reese, the Rabbit, Wagner and Ozzie, has joined the pantheon of legendary shortstops.

BO DON’T KNOW BASEBALL

Barry Larkin might never have donned a major league uniform if it wasn’t for Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler.

Larkin, an all-state safety when Moeller High School won Ohio state championships in 1979 and ’80, had hoped to play football for the Wolverines, but Schembechler decided to redshirt him during his freshman year.

Larkin used the time to hone his baseball skills and much to the chagrin of an incredulous Schembechler, walked away from football for good when his baseball skills improved during that year away from the gridiron.

Schembechler never really forgave Larkin for choosing baseball over football.

“He said, ‘Larkin, this is the University of Michigan!’ ” Larkin told ESPN Playbook. “No one comes to the University of Michigan and plays stinkin’ baseball!”

Schembechler went on: “You get out of this office, and you come back tomorrow when you come to your senses!”

Larkin went back, said he was sticking with baseball, and thought that was it. Except Schembechler occasionally visited baseball practices and razzed Larkin: “Larkin! Come hit a man who can hit you back instead of that sissy baseball!”

Larkin became a two-time All-America who appeared in two College World Series for the Wolverines. Larkin said people loved it when he returned to Michigan and occasionally told that story. Schembechler, who died in 2006, was not amused.

“Bo hated it,” Larkin said.


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