Barry Larkin

The hometown shortstop on redefining the position, what he learned from Pete and Eric and Davey, and how sweet it is to get some validation.

This month Major League Baseball enshrines its newest crop of Hall of Fame inductees, and to no great surprise the lineup includes Barry Larkin. During his 19-year career Larkin made 12 All-Star teams, won the 1995 National League MVP, and led the 1990 Reds to the World Series. In 1996 he became the game’s first-ever 30-30 shortstop when he clubbed 33 home runs and stole 36 bases. Along with Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Cal Ripken, he helped redefine the shortstop position. He’s even got a fan in stat geek Bill James, who ranks Larkin as one of the 10 best all-around players of all time. Today, Larkin makes his home in Orlando, though he still works with the Reds at spring training and is a regular on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. [Editors’ note: On Opening Day in 2021, Larkin made his debut as an analyst on the Reds TV broadcast team with play-by-play announcer John Sadak.] We caught up with him to talk about the Hall of Fame, playing for the home team, and why he would have loved to have Brandon Phillips as a double-play partner.

So, what does it feel like to be a Hall of Famer? Has your life changed in any significant way?

It’s funny, I asked Joe Morgan the same question. He said: “The way that [other] baseball players look at your career as a baseball player. The way the baseball community looks at your career. And that people who aren’t baseball fans will recognize you because you’re part of the greatest fraternity in all of sports.” It’s just like this validation sticker that’s now associated with my name.

Those who follow the game weren’t terribly surprised you were inducted, but were you?

Yeah, I was surprised.

Really?

I never dreamed about the Hall of Fame. Then [the first year I was eligible] I got 51 percent [of the votes needed]. I was really surprised I had so much support. The next year it went up to 62 percent, and I was like, Wow, this is really amazing. Guys like Robbie Alomar and Bert Blyleven, who got inducted this past year, were very sure I was going to be elected. Then I went to a golf tournament in the Dominican Republic and saw Jim Rice and Eddie Murray and they were telling me things about the Hall of Fame, and I thought, Man, they’re not guarded with their information. So all these things were happening. And on the day of the announcement—I hadn’t gotten much sleep—I woke up at about 6 o’clock and looked out the window and there was a full moon and I thought, This could be a special day.

You join Johnny Bench and Bid McPhee as the only HOF players who spent their entire careers with the Reds. What does that mean to you?

It’s a sense of pride. I had a couple of chances to go to other places but my mom and dad were in Cincinnati when I was playing and I thought it was important to stay to allow my dad to continue to come to every single game. I enjoyed that and I knew that he enjoyed that.

When it was announced you’d been elected you mentioned some of the guys who played an important role in your career—Eric Davis, Pete Rose, Dave Concepcion, Buddy Bell. How did they impact you as a player?

Early in my career they really stressed the importance of acumen and work ethic. Eric Davis said that the things that you do on the field and the way that you do [them] will bleed into the way that you do things off the field. Buddy Bell was my third baseman and my mentor on the field. Tony Perez was a mentor off the field. Pete Rose was another one. I remember him telling me to just continue to do the things that made me successful in getting to the big leagues. Then there was Dave Concepcion, who knew I was out there trying to take his job. But he just took me under his wing and showed me things as a baseball player.

Your relationship with Concepcion was unique because he was your boyhood idol but then you took over the shortstop position from him. What was that like for you?

It was a dream come true. I remember the first time I met David Concepcion. The Reds were up in Detroit and they were working out. This must have been in ’84 and I was in college. Dave Parker, who didn’t know me very well, takes me by the hand and walks me into the clubhouse where the Reds are dressing. He walks me right over to Concepcion’s locker, looked at David and said, “This guy right here, he’s going to take your job.” I’m like, Oh my God!

How did he react?

Davey looked at me and then looked at my hands and I had calluses all over my hands, and he said, “I don’t think so. His hands are too hard.” Then he kind of laughed it off and that was it.

Let’s step back for a minute. You initially turned your back on the Reds and a $92,000 signing bonus when they drafted you in 1982 to attend the University of Michigan. Was that a hard decision for you?

I didn’t feel like I was prepared to play professional baseball. I wanted to go to college and play football. That was actually the reason I went to Michigan, to play safety. When I got up there, Michigan’s coach, Bo Schembechler, made the decision to redshirt me and that allowed me to just play baseball. That was the first time in my life I participated in just one sport. And I got a lot better at it.

Say you had stuck with football. Would we be talking about a different hall of fame induction?

Uh, no. I was good but I wasn’t Deion Sanders or Bo Jackson.

When you broke into the big leagues, the clubhouse you entered was stocked with some pretty formidable veterans, guys like Dave Parker, Pete Rose, and Ken Griffey Sr. Was it a hard clubhouse to break into?

No, it wasn’t. I’m very appreciative of the fact that I grew up when I did in the game because I learned so much by watching those guys. Watching them take ground balls, watching how they handled success and failure. And then just watching how they stayed around after the game to talk about what happened, how they were going to fix things, and who they were going to face the next day. It was a clubhouse that was very structured and very hierarchical. I knew where I was on the totem pole.

Tell me a little bit about that 1990 team. How far into the season did you realize you had something special?

The first day of spring training, Lou Piniella came into the clubhouse and everybody is sitting around real quiet. He looked everybody up and down and said, “I don’t like losing, I don’t expect losing, and we’re not going to lose.” And he walked out. He just set the tone and the team took on that attitude.

Are you surprised the club didn’t make a return trip to the World Series?

That next year we were just decimated by injuries. And you know, we won a lot of games in 1990 that we probably shouldn’t have won. It’s good to be good, it’s great to be lucky, and it’s even better to be both.

As someone who’s actually seen this city celebrate a World Series championship, can you talk about what baseball means to Cincinnati?

Cincinnati is a great baseball town. It has some great fans. I know that winning in Cincinnati is a great thing, but I think playing the right way and representing the town as a blue-collar player is even more important. Early in my career, Pete Rose called me into his office and said there are two things about Cincinnati you need to know: Show up on time and play hard, because that’s what they expect. And stay out of the papers. It’s about doing it the right way and putting it all out on the field.

Are there any Reds players on the current roster you would have liked to play with?

I’d love to have Brandon Phillips as a double-play partner. He’s so creative and confident out there. I love Jay Bruce’s attitude. And I’d love to play with Aroldis Chapman.
I’m sure I’m leaving somebody out—there are a lot of guys I enjoy spending time with.

You’re now doing work for ESPN. What’s that been like for you?

Teaching is important to me; passing on information. I see TV as just another venue. It’s been great.

Do you see yourself returning to the game on a full-time basis?

It’s not out of the realm of possibilities, [but] my youngest daughter is in high school and I’m committed to seeing her through. She’s got a singing career that’s starting right now and it’s important that I’m accessible. As a uniformed coach, manager, player, whatever, the 162-game schedule doesn’t allow the freedom to do things I need to do as a dad.

You watch enough games. Are you ever tempted to make a comeback?

No. [Laughs] I enjoy watching. I’m comfortable with the fact that I retired when I did.

During your playing days a lot of attention was paid to some of the other shortstops in the game, even though you helped redefine the position. Do you think you get enough credit?

I was just elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame so that is all the credit and validation right there. [Laughs] But I can appreciate that question because I would ask myself, Is what I’m doing here enough? I would see the publications. I would see they mentioned Cal Ripken and Ozzie Smith, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez—and my name wasn’t there. But that’s OK. I didn’t play in a large market. I didn’t bring attention to myself. I flew under the radar my entire career. At the end, I’m in the Hall of Fame and there is no greater compliment for a baseball player.

Illustration by John Ritter

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