|A home grown Cincinnatian, Larkin turned down offers after his Reds phased him out. (Getty Images)|
Barry Larkin is one of those rare people who doesn't get nervous. Just doesn't happen. Isn't in his DNA.
He didn't get nervous on the field, where he fashioned a career that will put him in the Hall of Fame, if not Monday, then surely some day. He hit .338 in the postseason, when a lot of other folks do get nervous. Larkin once told me that if you ever got nervous, that means you weren't prepared. He wasn't kidding.
But Monday is a different day. There is no way to prepare for this. Everyone is telling him Monday may change his life.
Everyone tells him Monday is his day, that he'll surely make the leap from 62 percent to the 75 needed to make the Hall of Fame. But 13 percent is a big leap, and next year, more great contemporaries like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mike Piazza, Craig Biggio and Sammy Sosa will enter the ballot and take the focus off him.
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Larkin won't say he is nervous. But between golf shots near his home in Orlando on Sunday, he did admit to a touch of anxiety.
"Oh gosh, I'm excited," Larkin said by phone. "It's been unreal. I really don't know how to feel. The whole Hall of Fame thing, quite honestly, a couple years ago seemed so farfetched. When I got 52 percent [the first year of eligibility], I was surprised to be honest with you. I thought, 'That's cool.' And, when I saw Robbie Alomar go in, and I had a chance to talk to him about it, it became a little more real. And then I saw Eddie Murray and Jim Rice and Alomar, and it seemed like guys I played against were starting to be inducted. ... Just yesterday I started feeling anxious and excited about it. I am anxious, not nervous."
He's so anxious, he relayed to me that while he's not a very good golfer, he hit a 200-yard shot within six feet of the pin between questions. Larkin plans to play golf again Monday but expects he'll probably be home with his family when the call comes. Or doesn't come. Jack O'Connell of the Baseball Writers Association will call between 1:30 and 2 p.m. if Larkin gets in. If he doesn't, there's no call.
Larkin, in his third year of eligibility, is the only player on a ballot full of very good ones who are seen as having a realistic chance to make it. If he doesn't make it, the likelihood is that the late, great Cub Ron Santo, who was voted in by the Veterans Committee, will be the lone player inducted in July. Jack Morris, Lee Smith and Jeff Bagwell received the most votes of the returning players, with 53, 45 and 42 percent, and aren't seen as being within striking distance. At least not yet. Bernie Williams is the best of the newcomers to the ballot, with a candidacy that is based more on the postseason than the regular season. That normally translates into long odds.
Larkin's candidacy is based on a lot of great stuff that can't and shouldn't be ignored. If he isn't an all-time great, he is very close. Larkin, a .295 career hitter, made 12 All-Star teams, won nine Silver Sluggers, three Gold Gloves (and would have won a lot more if he hadn't overlapped a bit with Ozzie Smith) and an MVP. He was the first shortstop to join the 30-30 club when he had 33 homers and 36 steals in 1996. He had more career walks than strikeouts and an .813 career OPS.
Beyond all that, he is a credit to the game. It'll be a nice story when he does goes in. He's a home-grown Cincinnatian who played his whole career there as a Red. He hit .289 and made only four errors in 2004, his final year, and when the Reds inexplicably wanted to phase him out for a "youth movement" (Rich Aurilia was the choice to replace him; some youth movement that was), Larkin just couldn't bring himself to play elsewhere. Tony LaRussa called to offer him a job batting in front of Albert Pujols, and Larkin told LaRussa he couldn't do it, told him that Cardinals red was just a shade off for him. That's Lark.
Larkin won the Roberto Clemente Award and the Lou Gehrig Award. Nothing negative ever tainted him. That's Lark too.
Being as humble as he is, it didn't occur to him that this day would come, whether it's Monday or later.
"I never really thought about it as a player," Larkin said. "I never thought about it until I saw some support was there. I had thought it was unattainable. My whole approach was, 'How I can better the team?' I remember guys telling me early, 'You're never going to make money hitting behind runners.' They really wanted me to be selfish. I think what they were saying is that I should turn on the ball. It's definitely something I could appreciate later. But the years I had success were the years I had great players around me."
Pretty soon, he will be among those great players in Cooperstown. But don't expect Lark to get upset or become embittered if it takes awhile longer. As he puts it, "There's not many Ken Griffeys out there." He's one guy who understands that's true and doesn't expect anything. A decent case could be made for 15 players on this year's ballot. Larkin feels fortunate he is the one being said to have the chance.
Larkin, now an analyst for ESPN, makes his own case for at least two others: Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines.
"I remember playing against Baggy and thinking, 'This guy is unbelievable.' We could not get him out. And I remember Tom Raines, and just admiring everything he did. I remember big ability and athleticism."
There are lots of very, very god players on this year's ballot. But next year's ballot brings even better players, and that much more controversy. "That's going to be crazy, seeing how all that goes down," Larkin said.
In the meantime, Larkin stands alone as baseball's great hope Monday.
"There's no doubt about it. I have anxiety with all the talk that's been going on," he said. "I keep thinking, 'Is this really going to happen?'"