Larkin ends up right where he belongs
After detour to Michigan football, Reds fan reaches Hall of Fame
NEW YORK -- Once, when Barry Larkin was practicing with the University of Michigan baseball team on a cold, drizzly spring afternoon in Ann Arbor, a man wearing a huge parka took a seat in the stands and began heckling the shortstop.
It was Bo Schembechler, the legendary Michigan football coach.
Larkin reflected on that memorable moment as he was introduced to the media on Tuesday at the Waldorf-Astoria as baseball's newest Hall of Famer.
Larkin, after a brilliant multi-sport career at Cincinnati's Moeller High School, turned his back on a $50,000 baseball bonus from his hometown Reds and went to Michigan to play football as a defensive back.
Larkin idolized the Big Red Machine teams of the 1970s, and when drafted by the Reds in 1982, he figured he was passing up a boyhood dream.
"But I was a better football player -- then," Larkin said. "I was considering more a football opportunity. I wanted to go to [college] and I wanted to play football at Michigan. I let that be known, but the Reds drafted me anyway."
Regardless, he was destined to play baseball, and yes, to play for the Cincinnati Reds.
After Schembechler redshirted Larkin for his freshman year, Barry was able to concentrate on baseball and quickly discovered how much he was improving at the sport.
"It was the first time I was able to play just one sport," Larkin said. "That was an eye-opener because I got so much better."
The time came the next year when he had to break the news to Schembechler that football was out.
"He came across his desk and almost strangled me," Larkin said. "He told me to get out, but to come back the next day after I thought about it.
"I really thought it was over after I told him, but it wasn't. He walked into the stands that 40-degree day during practice and started yelling at me something about sissy baseball."
Even with his gruff persona, Schembechler backed down. Larkin went on to be a two-time All-American baseball player at Michigan.
It was a wise decision for both.
The Reds drafted Larkin again in 1985. and he made his Major League debut late in the '86 season.
"I talked to Bo a week or two before he passed [on Nov. 17, 2006]," said Larkin. "He talked about my induction into the Hall of Honor at the University of Michigan."
Larkin got his payback of sorts in 1990 when then-Detroit Tigers owner Tom Monaghan hired Schembechler as team president, a position Bo held just two years.
"When he took the job with the Tigers, we gave it back to him," Larkin said, laughing.
Giving up football was the best decision Barry ever made.
During 19 years with the Reds, Larkin earned nearly $79 million and now joins Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez from the Big Red Machine era in the Hall of Fame. They'll be on the stage July 22 in Cooperstown when Barry, along with the late Ron Santo, is inducted.
Considering the injuries Larkin had during his Major League career, there's no question baseball was his sport. He was on the disabled list 14 times.
"Giving up football wasn't hard at all," Larkin said. "I was a smaller guy then.
"I remember going up to Michigan on a recruiting trip my senior year. During that trip, we were running from one side of the campus to the other. Robert Perryman, a 6-foot-3, 230-pound tailback, was running beside me, and I tried to outrun him. But he was outrunning me.
"Right there, I was thinking, 'Hmmm, now I've got to try and tackle this guy?'"
During his senior year, Perryman, who went on to play six years in the NFL, finished second on the team in rushing yards and was not tackled for a loss the entire year. The Wolverines went 11-2 and won the Big Ten that season.
"Baseball worked well, and I started to reflect back on how big some of those guys were," Larkin said. "The lack of injuries I had at that time made me realize baseball might not be a bad thing."
Larkin believes his improved success at baseball left football further behind.
"Specifically, I think I was physically beginning to mature," Larkin said. "When I signed to go play football at Michigan, I was about 5-foot-10, 165-170 pounds. Being away from home helped me, because I also was maturing mentally. I felt like I had a sense of accountability. I had to grow up. I was forced that way.
"I remember really being challenged for the first time and not really liking it, but enjoying the battle of trying to step up to that challenge. Physically, the Xs and Os of the game -- I think I had a better mental approach to it.
"The coaches there were very pragmatic in their teaching of baseball. Some of those concepts and approaches to situations are things I utilized throughout my entire career. The game got faster as I got older and guys got better, but the approach was pretty much the same."
So, the football player turned baseball Hall of Famer is rightfully taking his place in Cooperstown.
When Larkin was introduced on Tuesday, BBWAA secretary/treasurer Jack O'Connell said: "A result like this one that puts a man like Barry Larkin in the Hall of Fame is very satisfying to all of us. Good people is the best way to describe Barry Larkin."
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.