Barry Larkin was a supremely athletic shortstop, whose acrobatic flair and know-no-limits daring resulted in spectacular plays. He was steady and productive on offense, a basestealer who could hit with enough authority to win nine Silver Slugger Awards.
In short, Larkin was a complete player, a Hall of Fame talent, as it turned out. He reached the Reds after a brief apprenticeship in the Minors. Larkin was so gifted, it's hard to imagine he ever questioned his ability. But he did.
"The first thing a young shortstop will have to go through is understanding he belongs," Larkin said. "I remember asking myself and asking people around me, 'Am I cut out to do this? Am I good enough?' There's a lot of self-doubt, a lot of questions."
Larkin said he sought counsel from, among others, his mother and Cincinnati players such as Dave Parker, Eric Davis, Buddy Bell, Ron Oester and Dave Concepcion, all of them with the Reds when Larkin joined the team in August 1986.
He had to clear two unusual hurdles at the outset of his career. Larkin had to beat out Kurt Stillwell, who arrived in Cincinnati early in the '86 season and was more than just another young Reds shortstop prospect. Stillwell was a personal favorite of Cincinnati owner Marge Schott.
Additionally, Larkin had to get his bearings in the big leagues. Hard enough for any young player, but harder still when playing in his hometown. Larkin was born and raised in Cincinnati, starred at Moeller High School there, and was drafted in the second round and 51st overall by the Reds in '82. Larkin went to the University of Michigan, and the Reds took him again, fourth overall in the '85 Draft.
"I remember as a rookie, looking at my jersey when I was in the infield and looking at the name 'Cincinnati' and understanding, 'Wow, I'm representing a city, my hometown,'"
Larkin said. "That all goes into the self-doubt. 'Can I do this? I have responsibilities. Can I handle those responsibilities?'"
Bell went on to manage the Tigers and Rockies and was fond of saying, "Good players can slow the game down." But as Larkin, who obviously was an exceptionally good player, discovered, that is a process and not something that happens right away.
At the Major League level, Larkin said, "The game gets so much quicker, because you're on a much bigger stage." To an outsider, it appears that the game is the same, that the bedrock fundamentals don't change and that the strategy is really no different than at Triple-A. But on the field in the midst of competition, that is not the case.
"You see the game as being faster," Larkin said. "You see the consequences as being different. You see the game as being different, because you're in it; you're experiencing it. Things seem to be coming at you from all different angles."
Larkin hit a career-low .244 as a rookie in '87, 51 points below his lifetime average and a nadir he never approached until he hit .245 at the age of 38 in 2002. By then, only two more seasons remained in Larkin's hourglass, and he was nearing the end of a grand run he never could have envisioned when he made his Major League debut on Aug. 13, 1986, as a pinch-hitter, and drove in a run grounding out against Terry Mulholland of the Giants.
Two days later, Larkin started his first game in the big leagues -- at second base with Stillwell playing shortstop -- and led off the bottom of the first with a single against San Diego left-hander Dave Dravecky, the first of Larkin's 2,340 hits.
"This is something you dreamed of your whole life," Larkin said. "And when you're living a dream, it feels like you can't do some of the things. The bad guy's chasing you in your dreams; you can't run as fast. Or if you're swimming and you're in water, you can't get to the top. That's how it feels when you're out there.
"For me, there was such hype. I was living a dream ... and you're thinking so much and you want to be so good. And those are all things encompassed in that self-doubt. When you go out there and get two or three years under your belt, when you go out there and have a track record, you're like, 'Whew.' But that's not the case when you first get into it. And I don't care what anybody says."
Larkin began his professional career at Double-A Vermont in the Eastern League, where he hit .267 in 72 games, with one homer and 31 RBIs. But Larkin also showed plate discipline, with more walks (23) than strikeouts (21), which would be the case in most seasons once he reached the big leagues and a reason he finished with a .371 on-base percentage.
At Vermont, Larkin's manager was Jack Lind, now a Houston Astros scout. Lind moved up in 1986 to manage Triple-A Denver, where Larkin hit .329 in 103 games with 31 doubles, 10 triples, 10 homers and 51 RBIs. He won both the Most Valuable Player Award and the Rookie of the Year Award in the American Association.
"He was very competitive, but he had a great sense of presence about him," Lind said. "There was no sense of panic at any time. He was just kind of focused on his job and was really a remarkable guy as far as that's concerned, as far as having a level head on his shoulders and handling everything that came his way."
One of Larkin's teammates at Denver was Tom Runnells, a second baseman who turned 31 that year and was a veteran mentor for Larkin. Runnells had also played with Stillwell at Denver in 1985.
"Barry was a different type of player than Kurt," said Runnells, now the bench coach for the Rockies.
"Kurt was a very young, talented shortstop in his own right. But Barry was special because of his athletic ability. He did things ordinary people don't do.
"He would push the limits. Where someone would be conservative in situations, Barry was all-out. And that's why he was so great; he wasn't afraid to make mistakes. In situations where as an infielder you say, 'OK, let's just be sure we get one out,' he's already thinking, 'Double play.' He would try to make plays that normal people would just say, 'Catch a ball or stop it, knock it down.' And he's catching it, jumping up in the air, firing across the diamond. And we're like, "Oh no, no, no ... great play.'"
Larkin was the Reds' primary shortstop in 1987, making 114 starts at the position. Stillwell started 46 games at shortstop and another 47 combined at second base and third base. Stillwell hit .258 with four homers with 33 RBIs in 395 at-bats. In addition to a .244 average, Larkin hit 12 homers with 43 RBIs in 439 at-bats. After the '87 season, the Reds traded Stillwell to Kansas City.
"I think that competition drove me to improve my skills," Larkin said. "That competition really drove me to do whatever I had to do to be the best."
While Larkin was fending off Stillwell, he was trying to settle in at one of the game's more demanding positions, where the challenges are cerebral as well as physical.
Larkin said that third baseman Bell warned, "You can't take a pitch off." And second baseman Oester also told Larkin that with a runner on third base, he had to pay strict attention between pitches, to be ready to get the ball should the catcher per chance overthrow the pitcher.
"I'm a rookie. I'm 22 years old," Larkin said. "I can't take the pitch off. I can't take off in between pitches. And when I get to the bench, all the hitters are telling me you got to watch every pitch the pitcher's throwing. Three hours in the game, and I'm absolutely 100 percent fried mentally.
"That's what a rookie, that's what a young guy goes through. It's not paranoia. It's a matter of trying to take it all in and do everything. I had some great statistics in the Minor Leagues, and when I got to the big leagues, it felt like I didn't know if I could hit anymore. I didn't know if I could field anymore. I didn't know if I could field anymore.
"You just build it up, build it up so much in your mind, at least I did. This was something I was passionate about. I wanted to be the absolute best. It was important for me, especially being in Cincinnati, representing my hometown."