At a time when the steroid era casts a long shadow over the selection process for the Baseball Hall of Fame, Barry Larkin is a breath of fresh air for all involved.
Larkin will be inducted into that hallowed fraternity in Cooperstown, N.Y., in July without any question as to the integrity of his career. He played the game with class, dignity and excellence, spending his entire 19-year career with his hometown Cincinnati Reds. He’s one of the finest shortstops in history, a 12-time All-Star who won the NL MVP in 1995 and a World Series in 1990.
While Larkin made the rounds recently to speak about his involvement with the Capital One Cup, ESPN Playbook interviewed him in depth about his major league career, playing for Pete Rose, competing on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team and an unforgettable conversation with legendary Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler. Here’s what transpired:
ESPN Playbook: You were a two-time All-American and played in the College World Series twice at Michigan. How does your collegiate experience tie into your involvement with the Capital One Cup?
Larkin: The biggest thing is to bring awareness to people, first of all, that education is very important. In baseball, we have a lot of players that have to make that decision: “Do I go to college, or do I sign professionally?” My message to a lot of guys is, if you like school and you like education, baseball is gonna be there, and you can get some of the same great competition in college that you do in the low minor leagues.
You were drafted in the second round out of high school by your hometown team, the Reds. How difficult was the decision not to sign?
It wasn’t. At that time, I wanted to go to the University of Michigan, and I wanted to play football. The only reason I would have signed is if my mom and dad said, “We really need you to sign to help us out financially.” ... The Reds kept upping their offer and trying to get me to sign, but I was dead set on going to school. So it really wasn’t a difficult decision for me. Also, I was a much better football player than baseball player coming out of high school. I wanted to go to college and play football.
After your freshman year, you met with Bo Schembechler to tell him you were switching from football to baseball. How did that conversation go?
First, I called my mother and asked her if she would call Bo, and she said, “No, you’ve gotta do this.” So we had a date set for our meeting, and I walked into his office. Bo was a multitasker. Bo’s head is down. He doesn’t make eye contact. He’s writing something, on the phone and doing something else. He had three or four things going on, and he was talking to me at the same time. I don’t walk into his office like I normally do and sit down at the desk right in front of him. I kind of stand in the doorway, and I don’t enter his office. I’m just kind of standing there. So he’s talking, [but] he doesn’t make eye contact with me.
He’s like, “Larkin, I want to know: Are you committed to returning punts?” He said, “I’m considering you at strong or free safety. I’m not sure. I’ve got to talk to [then-defensive coordinator Gary] Moeller about that.” Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. He’s just talking and rambling, and I’m not saying anything.
Then he kind of stops, and he still doesn’t make eye contact, and he’s like, “Is there a problem?” I go, “No Coach, there’s no problem.” He still hasn’t made eye contact with me. So he goes, “What is it, Larkin? You got something to tell me?”
I said, “Coach, I had a real good freshman baseball season and for the first time in my life I was able to just play one sport, and I think I just want to play baseball.” He took his glasses and put them on the table, took his pen and put it down. He made eye contact, and he said, “What did you say?”
I said, “Uhhhhh, I’m just gonna play baseball?” -- like it was a question.
He said, “Larkin this is THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN!” and pounded his desk. All the papers that were neatly [arranged] on his desk were flying all over the place. He came up over the desk -- almost climbed over the desk -- and he pointed at me and said, “No one comes to the University of Michigan and plays stinkin’ baseball!”
I’m like, “OK, Coach." He told me, “You get out of this office, and you come back tomorrow when you have come to your senses.” So I go back and tell him [again] the next day, and I thought that was the end of it.
Well, maybe three or four times a month [when] we’re out there practicing baseball, this guy in a hoodie comes out and he heckles me from the third-base line. It was Bo.
“LARKIN! Come hit a man who can hit you back instead of that sissy baseball!”
Unbelievable. The few times I got to tell that story up at Michigan, people loved it, but Bo hated it.
If you had stuck with football, do you think you could have been a successful pro?
I did enjoy football, but the injury factor for me, you know, I had so many issues. I don’t know how long my career would’ve been. I think I would’ve been competitive. I’m glad that Bo made that decision for me, though, because the size of those guys and the speed of those guys was nothing I experienced in high school. I remember going up on my recruiting trip and being an incoming freshman with a guy named Robert Perryman.
Robert Perryman is a 6-3, 240-pound tailback and runs a 4.4-4.5 40. That was about my speed as well. I remember playing around on our recruiting trip, messing around and running through the diag and thinking I can run away from this guy, and he was almost running away from me. I’m thinking, “Oh my gosh, and I gotta tackle that dude? I don’t know.” I’m glad that I just played baseball, because I’m sure I had a much longer baseball career than I would’ve had a football career. I did miss football, but I didn’t miss some of the injuries from football.
Your first manager in Cincinnati was Pete Rose. What’s the best story about him you can share?
My first day I get called up to the big leagues, Pete was the manager. … [Because of flight delays], I wound up getting to Cincinnati at 7 o’clock for a 7:35 game. I walk in the clubhouse, and Pete is walking toward the field. He looks at me, the first time I meet him in that professional manner, and he looks at me and says, “First day in the big leagues and you’re already late, Larkin?” He obviously was kidding. He was laughing about it.
He asked me, “Do you have any stuff?” I go, “No bags. I have nothing.”
He goes, “OK, you were gonna start, but you’re not ready, so I’m gonna start [Davey Concepcion or Kurt Stillwell or whoever it was]. … Do you have any bats or gloves or anything?”
I was like, “Skip, I have nothing.” So he gave me a pair of his shoes to wear, and he gave me a bat. I’m like, “Oh great. This is unbelievable.”
So I go into the clubhouse, and a couple other guys give me some stuff. I go out and get a chance to pinch-hit late in the ballgame and hit an RBI groundout to the shortstop, and it was absolutely great.
After the game, all the media leaves and Pete comes up to me and says, “How was that?” And I was like, “Aw man, it was unbelievable.”
He’s like, “Yeah, there’s nothing like playing in front of your hometown.” So we were talking a little about that -- him at Western Hills and me at Moeller, you know growing up in Cincinnati. Then he says, “All right, where’s my bat, and where’s my shoes?” I was like, “What?!” He’s like, “Give ‘em back.”
I was like, “Oh no!" Because I was gonna take them home that night, and he was never gonna see them again.
What a great manager. … We could talk not just on a baseball level and a professional level, but we could talk about things [like] growing up in Cincinnati and playing in Cincinnati, which really drew me in. I felt really close to him. He was really influential and helped me a lot with the mental aspects of the game.
How special was it to play alongside your brother in his only major league game?
It was nerve-racking. I think I was more nervous than he was. … I was just so excited for him and seeing his enthusiasm. It was fantastic. … I was just very appreciative of [then-general manager] Jim Bowden creating that opportunity for us.
[Editor's note: That game, in which the Reds beat the Pirates 4-1 on Sept. 27, 1998, is the only time in major league history that two pairs of siblings made up a starting infield. Barry Larkin played shortstop. Stephen Larkin played first base. Aaron Boone played third base. Bret Boone played second base.]
Stephen went 1-for-3 in that game, which gives him a higher career batting average than you [.333 to .295]. Does he ever tease you about that?
Naw, he doesn’t tease me about it, but he does tell me that he did get a hit in that game and I did not.
If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?
I would try to get rid of the hatred – the negative energy and hatred. I am so opposite of the pessimists. You said the world, but I’m saying the United States. Because I get a chance to travel. The last two places I went to were Brazil and Ecuador, and at least in the circles I run in when I travel internationally, it’s just a very different outlook on things. It’s positive. Positive, positive, positive. I wish there were more of that in the circles that I walk in the States. You can’t stereotype and generalize, but if there was one thing I would change, it would be the negative … everything. From politics to covering sports to people in everyday life.
You teamed with Mark McGwire and Will Clark on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team. What’s your enduring memory of that experience?
I remember Opening Ceremonies in Dodger Stadium. I remember being in Dodger Stadium, a place that I dreamt about playing, and everyone in the stadium yelling for our team. There’s 50-some-odd-thousand people there. We had the USA uniform on, and I just remember people chanting “U-S-A, U-S-A!” I couldn’t believe the patriotism that I felt and how proud I was at that point.
In its second year, the Capital One Cup is given to the best men’s and women’s Division I college athletics programs in the country. Capital One will award a combined $400,000 in student-athlete scholarships and the Capital One Cup trophy to the winning schools in July at the ESPY Awards. Fans can follow the standings at www.capitalonecup.com or on Twitter @CapitalOneCup.