Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Wait til next year

The date was September 16, 1992. I had a high school soccer game that night, but it would be the only game in four years I didn't play. Why? Because I would be at Riverfront Stadium, not only watching the Cincinnati Reds take on the Atlanta Braves, but also to watch the two teams take batting practice - ON THE FIELD. I've written about my good fortune in winning the celebrity bat girl contest here. What I didn't write about how that was the day Barry Larkin became my favorite player.

Now, I'm not going to get into the whole need-to-reform-voting-process thing now. Suffice it to say that 278 BBWAA members voted for Barry, quite good for a first ballot (although how 115 voters picked Alomar and not Larkin is a head scratcher. Barry was just as good as Robby!)

I am part of the beginning of the post-Big Red Machine generation. I was a child of the eighties and grew up with a bunch of second place teams and the heartbreak of Pete's downfall. When I look back on it, I see that we needed that 1990 World Series. Pete, the hometown hero, had taken the plunge and took the Cincinnati Reds Baseball Club down with him. But in 1990, well, the team came right back and returned the heart back to the city, stitched it up with 108 double red stitches.

It was a ragtag bunch, that 1990 team, made up of guys whose careers were defined by two or three seasons - Todd Benzinger, Hal Morris, Mariano Duncan, Chris Sabo, Glenn Braggs, Tom Browning, Jose Rijo, Danny Jackson, Rob Dibble, Randy Myers, Norm Charlton, Herm Winningham, Joe Oliver, Billy Bates. You won't find their names mentioned in a debate on the Hall of Fame. The Reds' star, Eric Davis, had a down year that season. There was one guy, though, a 26 year old shortstop from Cincinnati, Ohio, who led that team back to respectability.

A hometown boy was a hero once again.

There are no numbers for that, no stats, no measurable quantities. There are no trophies or awards for picking up the pieces of your shattered city and restoring honor and respect and dignity to your ballclub.

Barry Larkin was in his fifth season when he hit .301/.358/.396 in 1990. He won his third Silver Slugger that year and was chosen for the All Star team for the third time. He finished 7th in MVP voting. People thought Eric Davis was the star, but that team was Barry's team.

Barry was always overshadowed by someone or something or somewhere, that where being Cincinnati. By the time 1990 had rolled around, people outside of Southwest Ohio/Northern Kentucky had all but forgotten about the Big Red Machine with its two World Series wins, four pennants, and six division titles. Cincinnati was some quaint town in Ohio on its way to economic decline - baseball belonged to the coasts. Oakland was supposed to mash the Reds to a pulp that year but somehow couldn't muster one win and the Reds had a perfect season, wire to wire with a trophy on top.

Barry was overshadowed by the Wizard of Oz, who won a lucky number 13 Gold Gloves in a row before finally turning over the honor to Barry. You know how the Gold Glove voting works - once you have it, it's yours to lose. Had voting been less biased, Barry would have had two or three more to add to the three he did win. But hey, it is what is.

Barry was overshadowed by Cal Ripken, Jr., who hit more than double the number of homers as Larkin's 198 and had over 700 more RBI. (Though Larkin's average, on base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, and OPS+ were better than Ripken's: Larkin's .295/.371/.444/.815/116 to Ripken's .276/.340/.447/.788/112) Barry won nine Silver Sluggers, the award for best offense at a position, while Ripken won eight. He was the best hitting shortstop in the National League.

Barry may have been one step short of Ozzie's defensive greatness and one step short of Ripken's offensive greatness, but Ozzie didn't have Barry's offense and Cal didn't have Barry's defense. Barry Larkin was the complete package.

But Larkin is more than numbers to most of us. To people my age, he defined our childhood. Players would come and go and rosters would change and free agents would follow the money, but number 11 was always worn by one guy in one place. Like Marty Brennaman, he was the constant in our lives, the stability, the one guy we knew would be there as we moved through high school, through college, through work, through marriage, through weddings and funerals and births and baptisms. His career grew with us. We smiled when he smiled, we hurt when he hurt, we were frustrated when he was frustrated (and that was quite often!)

He was never able to give us another World Series, though he did deliver a division title in 1995 and would have given us another in 1994 without the strike, I'm quite certain of that. The 96 wins team of 1999 saw him play 161 games, his highest total of any season. (Curse you, Al Leiter!) The Reds would not have had those four great seasons in the nineties without Barry Larkin manning shortstop, even if he did have to have a sub frequently.

When he won the MVP in 1995, criticism of the pick abounded. His numbers were not the best in the league (several others had much better numbers.) Yet the voters got it right, and for once, Barry Larkin was recognized for what was his greatest asset - his leadership, an intangible that rarely gets the credit it deserves. He was truly the Most Valuable Player in baseball - the Reds could not have won the division without him. Indeed, he was the Reds' most valuable player of the decade.

He chose to retire rather than play somewhere other than Cincinnati, which says volumes about his commitment to the city of his birth. His community service was boundless - you don't find many star players who put in the time and effort that he did to make his community a better place. Now all of us Reds fans are sitting back and waiting for the day when he will return as manager of the Cincinnati Reds Baseball Club, where his number 11 waits for him to wear it once again. That day will come, I am certain of it. So, too, will his election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Also read Brendanukkah on what Barry means to him.


ken said...

Growing up as a Reds fan in the mid-80s was strange, I agree. You knew you were rooting for a great franchise, but one whose current form paled in comparison to its predecessor in the prior decade. I remember going to games and seeing Rose, Perez, and Concepcion, but at that point they were the Big Gray Machine (see what I did there?). Davis and especially Larkin brought that team out of the shadow of the BRM.

Tom K. said...

Well said.

Daedalus said...

Big Gray Machine. HAHAHAHAHA

Derreck said...

Few things about baseball stick in my mind as vividly as the '90 World Series. My grandfather, a lifelong Reds fan from the coal mine counties of Kentucky, was in a nursing home after a stroke. He wanted nothing more than to see the Reds win the series that year. We sat bedside and watched every playoff game and every World Series game. He past the following January. I love Larkin and Paul O'Neill to this day.

Love you, Gramps.

Daedalus said...

Derreck, thank you so much for sharing your story. Baseball is a funny game, isn't it? It's like it's designed to create memories.

Your story made me tear up.