07/22/12 - 01:57pm
Barry Larkin's Hall of Fame induction speech lasted 33 minutes. At least 32 of them paid tribute to others.
That was fittingly gracious for a guy who believed himself a "complementary" player to the end, even as he stood Sunday on a podium high above the crowd gathered to witness his finest moment.
"I would often question myself," Larkin said. He wondered: "Can I try harder?" Am I doing enough? Am I doing the right things, on the field and off?
Need a hitter to get things rolling for Eric Davis and Paul O'Neill? Bat Larkin leadoff. Need someone to drive in runs? Bat Larkin third. Need a base stolen, a runner advanced or a memorable defensive play? Larkin, Larkin and Larkin. He entered the Hall of Fame Sunday not because he did one thing especially brilliantly, but because he did them all very well.
Larkin was the honor roll student, not the valedictorian. He was the three-sport star, not Mister Basketball. If he were a mechanic, you'd trust him with your brakes and your tires, but maybe not the cylinders of your Maserati. He was a guy best appreciated up close and daily, because his numbers rarely popped your eyes. The year he was the Most Valuable Player of the National League, 1995, Larkin drove in all of 66 runs. He hit 15 homers, he didn't score 100 runs. That year, Colorado's Dante Bichette hit .340 with 40 homers and 128 driven in. He finished second in the voting.
Larkin never missed a chance to advance a runner. He never stole an extraneous base. He never struck out more than 69 times in a season. He had a career on-base percentage of .371. Defensively, he was rarely out of position. He could be balletic. Vintage Larkin was Barry behind second base, in short centerfield, lunging for a ground ball, stabbing it, then throwing back across his body to first base.
Larkin was the Reds captain, a charge he never took lightly. He played for some of the best minds and biggest egos in the game. Pete Rose, Lou Piniella and Davey Johnson knew what they knew. Each looked to Larkin for clubhouse glue. Piniella named him captain; Johnson has called Larkin the best player he ever managed.
Larkin spent his entire career where he grew up, in Cincinnati. He took less money on a contract to stay in town. He rejected a trade to the New York Mets in 2000, because the Mets would not give him a multiyear deal, and he didn't want to uproot his family.
Each of us is a product of those who have preceded us. The smart among us filter the past. We pan for gold. Our elders are there to instruct, both for good and ill. What works, what doesn't. What abides.
Larkin paid tribute to the gold. He started with his family, his mother and father, Shirley and Robert, the back and the bone of who he is. Robert is quiet dignity. Shirley is a big brass band. "I keep telling her she should run for mayor of Cincinnati," he said.
He thanked his children and his wife, and teared up. He paid tribute to his idol Davey Concepcion, offering a remarkable, several-minute riff in Spanish. Growing up, "I wanted to do everything like Davey," Larkin explained. "The one thing I couldn't do was speak Spanish."
He took it in school. He enlisted the aid of minor league teammates. He got good enough at it, he could deal with clubhouse issues in Cincinnati, when he was the team captain.
Larkin thanked Buddy Bell, for giving him perspective. Bell asked Larkin to "smell the grass" at Dodger Stadium. Literally. Then he told Larkin to "turn over" on his back, to gaze at the vastness of the stadium. "Pretty big?" Bell asked. "Yeah." "How big do you feel?" "Like an ant," Larkin replied.
"That's right," said Bell. "That's how big we all are, in the grand scheme of baseball."
Larkin mentioned Dave Parker, more than once. The Cobra – "Pops" to Larkin -- is a big man, with a big personality. He influenced a lot of players. Maybe none more than Larkin. Larkin referenced a mysterious, postgame batting session his rookie season, with Parker and Eric Davis. He'd been slumping and, in the judgment of Pops, not exerting the effort needed to bust out of it.
He praised the work ethic of Davis which only in recent years has been appreciated among Reds fans for what it was. Early in Larkin's career, Davis invited him to his suburban Los Angeles home, in Woodland Hills. Larkin figured it would be a fun vacation. The first morning he was there, Davis rousted Larkin and had him running hills.
To the unease of Baseball commissioner Bud Selig, Larkin propped Pete Rose "for his wisdom and support."
And so on. The speech summed up Larkin's career as well as any number on baseballreference.com.
Larkin even praised the Stowe family – father Bernie, sons Rick and Mark – for their work in the home and visitors clubhouses. Not long before he retired in 2004, Larkin gave Reds clubhouse manager Rick Stowe a new Mercedes sedan.
All this helps explain how a guy raised in a baseball-mad place could play for 19 years in that same place, and be as beloved when he stopped playing as when he started. It's not an easy game. It gets a little more dicey when you're playing for the respect and appreciation of your family, your friends, your fans and your city. The weight can be ponderous. Larkin bore it lightly.
He wasn't the greatest all-around player. Appreciating Larkin fully required daily observance, because lots of what he did could not be quantified. Barry Larkin did Winning Things.
Most of this, Larkin achieved himself. He was a remarkable athlete. Some of it, he learned by watching and listening. Sunday, the complementary player paid tribute to all those he watched and listened to.
Read Barry Larkin's full Hall of Fame speech here.