Ten Who Missed: No. 5, Barry Larkin
Happy Friday! Today we continue our “Ten Who Missed” series — a companion to The Baseball 100, It features 10 players who just missed The Baseball 100 (those 10 players were chosen by you in a survey that Tom Tango and I did a while back). We’ll have a new “Ten Who Missed” essay every Friday. Here are the ones we’ve had so far:
Bonus essay: Zack Greinke
No. 10: Vladimir Guerrero
No. 9: Eddie Murray
No. 8: Shoeless Joe Jackson
No. 7: Turkey Stearnes
No. 6: Harmon Killebrew
There are, I think, two kinds of baseball stars. There are the stars you fully appreciate while you’re watching them. And there are the stars you learn to appreciate later.
Shohei Ohtani, for instance, is a star you appreciate right now, while he’s doing impossible things. The other day, pal Mike Schur went on The Dan LeBatard Show and talked about how Ohtani is the best player in the American League. Someone responded on Twitter: “How is the 12th-best pitcher and 18th-best hitter somehow the best player in the league?” — a self-own that only spotlights the extraordinary and historic show that is Shohei.
Reggie Jackson was a right-now star. You didn’t need time to understand that he was extraordinary, that he was doing things you would remember forever. Ken Griffey Jr. was a right-now star, so was Greg Maddux, Willie Mays, Johnny Bench, Albert Pujols, Mickey Mantle, Bob Gibson, you can make the list off the top of your head. When you watched them, you knew: “I’m watching a future Hall of Famer. I’m watching one of the best players who ever played the game.”
Sometimes, right-now stars don’t age especially well. Steve Garvey was a right-now star, he seemed destined to be considered one of the all-timers. Some still believe he is … and they continue to fight for his Hall of Fame election. Dave Parker was a right-now star. Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden were right-now stars. Dale Murphy was a right-now star. Don Mattingly was a right-now star. None of them are in the Hall of Fame (yet), but you may remember them better than any number of players who are Hall of Famers.
This leads to the second kind of baseball star — the ones you appreciate more later, once the years have shined a light on their greatness. Craig Biggio, I think, was like that. Larry Walker. Edgar Martinez. Alan Trammell. Mike Mussina. Again, you can probably name a dozen or more, players who make you look back and think, “Wow, I didn’t appreciate just how great they really were.”
For me, the all-time appreciate-later star is Barry Larkin.
Thanks to a lucky break, I watched Barry Larkin play daily in the mid-1990s, when he was at the height of his power. I saw he was good.
I didn’t see that he was great until later.
When I was 27 years old, I was hired to become the sports columnist for The Cincinnati Post, a once mighty and now-defunct afternoon newspaper. No two words slammed together express outdatedness more than “afternoon newspaper.”
Even by the time I got there, afternoon papers were pretty much horse-and-buggies; there were only a handful left in America. Still, it was my first big-league job. Because the Post was a horse and buggy, its sports editor, Mark Tomasik, could take a chance on an unknown and mostly clueless 27-year-old kid writing columns in Augusta, Ga.
Those three years in Cincinnati shaped me as both a writer and a person — Cincinnati is an interesting and unique town. Let me tell a quick story before getting back to Barry Larkin:
In 1995, my second year at the paper, the Reds made the playoffs (largely BECAUSE of Barry Larkin). This was, of course, the year after the strike and the cancelation of the World Series, so there were a lot of angry feelings about baseball and, particularly, baseball players in Cincinnati. A lot. Maybe more angry feelings there than in any other city in America. Cincinnati is, at its heart, a blue-collar town.
As such, many people did not show up for the playoffs. It was jolting to see a baseball playoff game with so many empty seats. Because I was a mostly clueless kid, this bothered me immensely. I wrote a ridiculous and scathing column bashing the fans for not showing up for the game. It got attention, which I suppose was the point. Al Michaels quoted it on the national television broadcast. Reds broadcaster Marty Brennaman ripped me completely and utterly on local radio (to be fair to Marty, he cornered me before the game and plainly told me: “I’m going to take a piece of your hide”).
The letters that poured in after that column — this in the days before email — were so heated that some of them actually burst into flames before I could read them.
There really was nothing for me to do but take it. I deserved all that heat. I would not say it was the dumbest column I’ve ever written — there are so many candidates — but it was plenty dumb.
Anyway, as I recall, the fury lasted for days and days … until it stopped rather suddenly. Why did it stop rather suddenly? Because a Cincinnati legend named Nick Clooney — yes, George’s father and a renowned journalist and television host — stood up for me in his newspaper column. He said that what I had written was right, or at least right enough, or at least that I had the right to say it. And that Cincinnati was lucky to have me as a columnist.
That more or less ended the whole thing. It was like getting a benediction from the Pope. The angry letters stopped coming. Supportive letters started. In many ways, Nick Clooney rescued me by vouching for me. In Cincinnati, he had that kind of charisma and that kind of gravitas. He was Cincinnati royalty.
And so was Barry Larkin.
Those Reds teams of the mid-1990s — 1994-1996 were my years — were wild and wonderful and ridiculous. I had written some Atlanta baseball while in Augusta, but those Reds were really my first team. And what a way to start. If I was going to write a baseball television series, it would probably be about those mid-’90s Reds.
You had owner Marge Schott calling you “honey” and showing up at the ballpark with a Ziploc bag full of hair from her dog, Schottzie (she would rub it on players for good luck).
You had kooky Jim Bowden as general manager wearing weird but colorful sweaters and wheeling and dealing every minute of every day.
You had Davey Johnson, in his post-Mets days, looking 25 years older than he was, managing beautifully until getting fired because he was living with his fiancée before they were married.
Then Ray Knight came in to manage, and what a character. He used to listen to talk radio nightly and he would sometimes call in and he would sometimes employ the ideas he heard from Mike in Covington or Jerry in Blue Ash. I wrote a column begging him to stop doing that, to stop listening to all the voices around him and to start managing the team on his own since, you know, that was why they hired him.
Ray called me into his office the next day. I fully expected him to light me up for the column, which was totally his right.
“Joe Joe,” he said sternly — he always called me Joe Joe for some reason — and then his face brightened, and he said, “You’re absolutely right! I’m going to do exactly what you said! I’m going to stop listening to talk radio! I’m going to start relying on my own instincts!”
And I said: “Ray, when I told you to stop listening to everybody, I was including myself.”
Oh, it was so great! Deion Sanders was around, so you can imagine what a party that was. Jose Rijo was one of the most joyous people you could imagine. So was Kevin Mitchell. David Wells was a blast. Reggie Sanders and Hal Morris were the perfect straight men for the comedy extravaganza all around them. Bret Boone was great. I covered some truly hilarious Kansas City Royals teams, but I don’t think I’ll ever find another clubhouse or team that as much fun.
All the while, Barry Larkin was at the center of it all.
Or, more to the point, Barry Larkin somehow floated above it all.
He was a mystery to me.