A logjam of kids swelled behind the first-base dugout in Riverfront Stadium.
As my wife and I watched, our two sons blended into that sea of sweaty, eager youngsters in the summer of ’95. Most of them clutched baseballs, mitts, game programs and other autograph-worthy objects. Across the wall stood several Cincinnati Reds players, casually stretching and cutting up. The Red who mattered most to my 7-year-old was shortstop Barry Larkin.
On this day, though, the signing ritual was cut short. The players abruptly returned to the dugout, and many of the kids turned around with glum faces and trudged back up the aisle through the box-seat section. Our oldest son — an avid fan — climbed the steps without a Barry Larkin signature, a bit disappointed but nonetheless anxious to take in the actual ball game. We were glad to see him still smiling. What we didn’t see was his carefree, 5-year-old kid brother and ever-present sidekick.
“Where is he?” we asked in panic.
“On the field,” our 7-year-old answered, matter-of-factly.
Sure enough, we looked up and saw our 5-year-old sprinting into center field alongside a couple dozen other kids. In those days, Marge Schott — the Reds’ crusty, eccentric owner — occasionally let a few randomly selected children run through the outfield before the opening pitch. As the lucky, chosen ones were steered back to the first-base gate, the Reds players began emerging from the dugout. Our boy strolled right past Larkin and the other Reds, grinning yet oblivious to the rarity of his opportunity, while his big brother could only watch in awe.
Our sons, and later their little sister, spent many weekend, family getaways in the seats of Riverfront Stadium and its successor, Great American Ballpark. (The Queen City is part of their lineage; my parents grew up a half-hour away in Aurora, Ind.) Many of our fondest baseball memories surrounded Larkin. As babies, the boys sat on our laps in 1990, when Larkin and the Reds stayed in first place all season and then swept the heavily favored Oakland A’s in the World Series.
The next June, we saw Larkin hit the first two of five homers in a two-game span — a feat no other major-league shortstop had accomplished. In 1995, he played well enough to earn the National League Most Valuable Player Award. Even as the Reds struggled in later years before Larkin retired in 2004, he stood out.
Countless times, we watched Larkin snare scorching grounders, throw out baserunners from deep in the second-base hole, masterfully execute hit-and-run plays, and inspire his fellow Reds with class and dignity. Fittingly, Larkin delivered on that missed autograph, too, promptly responding to a mailed request by sending our oldest a signed game-action photo.
The picture still hangs in my son’s room, though he’s grown up and on his own now, working and seeing the world. He didn’t forget the message Larkin wrote on the photograph — “Study hard, play hard.” As a strong high school wrestler and a Purdue graduate, he fulfilled both pieces of advice.
Most of all, Larkin gave our kids and thousands of others little reason to later regret having called him their favorite Reds player. As former Cincinnati manager Lou Piniella told mlb.com on Monday, “He’s an outstanding individual, both on and off the field.” That statement can’t always be uttered truthfully about players being considered for Baseball Hall of Fame induction. During the next several years, the ballots will include the names of record-setting players who, unlike Larkin, were known or suspected steroid users. This week, former teammates, managers, executives and fans gushed words similar to Piniella’s when the announcement came that Larkin would be enshrined at Cooperstown, N.Y.
They also raved about his skills, reflected through statistics — the first shortstop with 30 homers and 30 stolen bases in a season, a .338 postseason batting average, 198 career home runs, 2,340 hits, three Gold Gloves and nine Silver Slugger awards. Larkin lived up to his label as “quiet leader” of the Reds in other ways, too. He studied Spanish to communicate better with his Latin American teammates. Having left the University of Michigan after being drafted by Cincinnati following his junior year, Larkin later finished his final year of college and earned his degree, fulfilling a promise to his mother and grandmother. He even offered to buy natural grass turf to replace the hard AstroTurf at old Riverfront Stadium, hoping to preserve his aging knees and those of the other Reds.
And, he played all 19 of his big-league seasons in Cincinnati, his hometown. Larkin never abandoned the small, Midwestern city where he played Little League baseball and high school football at Cincinnati Moeller. He never embarrassed the Reds, the club he grew up watching in their “Big Red Machine” heyday of the 1970s. Through some rough, tumultuous Reds seasons of his own, Larkin kept his loyalty and character.
After Larkin got the call from Cooperstown on Monday, Cincinnati Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty asked him, “When you are telling your children about your career, what do you want them to know most?”
“Humility, in everything and anything I do,” Larkin answered.
People who practice that virtue, by definition, don’t bring attention to themselves. Thus, they silently may wonder if anybody on earth even notices. I can only speak for one household in Indiana, but rest assured, Barry Larkin, your integrity is not forgotten.
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
A logjam of kids swelled behind the first-base dugout in Riverfront Stadium.
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