PLANT CITY, FLA.
All around baseball the talk is of shortstops. Of the Yankees Derek Jeter, Seattle's Alex Rodriguez, and a handful of those it their twentys who may form the best crop of young shortstops in major-league history. Of Baltimore's Cal Ripken, a career shortstop who is switching to third base. Of Boston's John Valentin, who fought a move from short to second. And of St. Louis's Royce Clayton, whose year of job-sharing with the "Wizard of Awes" has ended with Ozzie Smith's retirement.
Given all this shortstop chatter, it's amazing that Barry Larkin's name doesn't come up more often. Larkin may get overlooked because he is so consistently excellent and plays for a team, the Cincinnati Reds, whose off-field trials (owner Marge Schott is serving a two-year baseball suspension) have recently overshadowed the on-field triumphs.
Yet Larkin was the National League's Most Valuable Player in 1995, when he became the first shortstop since Maury Wills in 1962 to win that award. And last year, he was actually better in several areas, compiling career highs in runs (117), home runs (33), and runs batted in (89). Along the way, he became only the second nonoutfielder to collect 30 or more home runs and stolen bases in the same season and earned a Gold Glove for fielding excellence.
During a recent visit to the Reds' spring training complex in Plant City, Fla., more media attention was focused on Deion Sanders, who also plays football for the Dallas Cowboys, than on the less flamboyant Larkin, who has been selected the team's first captain in nine years.
The flashy Sanders has returned to baseball after a short absence and is committed to stay so long as the Reds are in contention.
Larkin, on the other hand, has been with his hometown team since Cincinnati drafted him out of the University of Michigan in 1985.
He broke in under manager Pete Rose, later banned from baseball for gambling. Five managers have followed, including current skipper Ray Knight, but Larkin has never played for any other team, nor does he seem inclined to. He could be one of baseball's last one-franchise superstars.
"In this clubhouse I know guys have taken a lot less money to play here because they think it's a comfortable situation," he says. "But generally ... there's not much loyalty as far as the players toward the teams or the teams towards the players."
Larkin says it seems like a long time ago that the Reds won the 1990 World Series. Since then the roster has been almost totally overhauled.
What Larkin likes, though, is "that we've had a very competitive organization for the last 10 years. People in Cincinnati like to see a winner and expect to see a winner and I think the guys respond to that."
Despite the distractions of Schott's suspension (league-appointed CEO John Allen runs the team), the Reds won their division in 1994 and '95, and reached the league Championship Series on the latter occasion.
During the season, Larkin lives minutes from where he grew up. He says the Reds enjoy a large regional following, yet Cincinnati retains a "small-market" atmosphere."The media is not real hard [on players] like it is in some larger cities," he observes.
That appeals to him, as does having his brother, Stephen, who is 10 years younger, in the Reds' minor-league system.
"I want to play in the big leagues with my brother," says Barry, whose contract runs through 1999. "If he makes it up to Cincinnati, I want to finish my career with the Reds. I'd like my parents to have the joy of seeing us playing together."