Barry Larkin had just finished his final season for the Cincinnati Reds in 2004, making the All-Star team at the ripe “old” age of 40. After 19 seasons, he finished with a career .371 on-base percentage, 441 doubles, 76 triples, 198 home runs and 379 stolen bases.
After a brief hiatus following years in Cincy's front office, I was named senior vice president and general manager of the Washington Nationals that November and called Barry to see if he wanted to play shortstop one final season in the nation’s capital. The move could certainly have helped his post-playing career, no matter which direction he chose to go. I always viewed Barry as a future manager and still do; I think he has a legitimate chance of replacing Dusty Baker in a few years as manager of the Reds, if he decides to go down that path.
As Barry came to Melbourne, Fla., to visit with me, I had several job offers for him. He could have played shortstop for us, but I also offered him other positions: baseball consultant, special assistant to the GM, special instructor or a combination of all four. He brought his family and we toured the spring training complex, discussing and cogitating over his future. It was a future that we all knew belonged in Cincinnati rather than Washington, but circumstances at the time just didn’t make it a viable option for him.
As we arrived in the dugout as a group, Barry started to walk ahead of us at a fast pace. I watched him cross the foul territory line, heading to the pitcher’s mound and eventually stopping at shortstop. The rest of us were still in the dugout and moments later we found ourselves joining him at his home at the shortstop position.
For a moment, I thought I was in the sequel to “Field of Dreams.” I actually got goose bumps.
The reality is most of us sit in an office with a desk inside some building. I was quickly reminded that the space between second and third base was Barry’s office. It was just seconds before I came to realization that Barry was not going to play shortstop for the Nationals. Instead, he was going to follow the footsteps of Carl Yastrzemski, Tony Gwynn, George Brett and the other greats who had spent their entire playing careers with one team. Indeed, it is a difficult achievement in this day and age of arbitration, free agency and revenue sharing.
My entire career as general manager in Cincinnati, I was blessed with one shortstop and that was No. 11, Barry Larkin. He was the National League’s best at that position during his era. He made 12 All-Star teams, won eight Silver Slugger Awards, an NL MVP and three Gold Glove Awards. I’m confident he would have won eight had it not been for the brilliance of Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith.
He was the best in the game in hitting a ground ball to second base in order to move a runner to third with less than two outs. He was the best in the game with his range to his left and making the athletic 360-degree play to first base. He would steal a base to win a game rather than to pad numbers and would always give himself up for the team. He was all about winning, preparation and perseverance.
His tenure in Cincinnati was not perfect. Barry dealt with many difficult issues, both on and off the field. But he was always a standup guy and loyal to his owner, GM, manager, coaches and teammates, whether he agreed or disagreed with a situation.
I was a young GM, and he taught me a lot about intangibles and the importance of watching how players handle pressure situations. Meaning, who cares if a player is an above-average defender if he can’t make the play in a 1-1 game in the ninth inning? Who cares if a player is a .300 hitter with 20 home runs if he can’t produce when you need him most? Barry taught me how to see that.
At a time when it was difficult to attract players to Cincinnati because of our low budget and other off-field issues, Barry was always there to help the organization recruit veterans such as Benito Santiago, Tony Fernandez, John Smiley and Ron Gant.
Barry also was all about the front of the jersey and not the back. He was all about holding the World Series trophy at the White House, which he did after we won the 1990 World Series. He also was never too busy for others. Barry always made time for my sons, and that included allowing Tyler, Chad, Trey and Chase play shortstop next to him during spring training.
Barry goes into the Hall of Fame this weekend as his era’s best NL shortstop, but he’s also going in because of his high character, integrity, family values and all of the championship-caliber insight he gave the organization -- his only organization -- throughout his career. On behalf of my family, congratulations to you, Barry, on achieving the ultimate accomplishment for a major league baseball player. You will always be a Cincinnati Red, but you now join the team that you really belong to -- the Hall of Fame roster that honors the greatest individuals to ever have played the game of baseball.