Born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, Barry Larkin decided at the age of five that he would someday replace his idol, Reds’ shortstop Dave Concepcion. Indeed, by the time Concepcion retired after the 1988 season Larkin had already made his first visit to the All-Star Game as the Reds’ starting shortstop. He soon established himself as a worthy heir to Concepcion’s considerable legacy, developing a reputation as one of the best shortstops in the game while maintaining close ties to the Cincinnati community.
The Reds actually drafted Larkin twice. After the three-sport star graduated from the Queen City’s Moeller High School (Don Zimmer‘s alma mater) in 1982, the Reds took him with a second-round pick. But instead of signing, Larkin elected to attend the University of Michigan, where he spent three years honing his game at the college level. In 1984, Larkin batted .311 as the starting shortstop for the talented U.S. Olympic team which included such future stars as Will Clark and Mark McGwire. A year later, the Reds made him the fourth overall selection in the free-agent draft.
Larkin was named MVP of the American Association (Triple-A) in only his second year in the minors (1986) and made his major league debut for the Reds in August of the same year. The young prospect batted .283, starting 34 of his 41 games down the stretch, and began the 1987 season determined to beat out fellow prospect Kurt Stillwell as Concepcion’s successor. Larkin endured a sophomore slump during a first half which saw him hit just .209, but he rebounded late in the year to finish at a respectable .244 with 12 home runs and 21 stolen bases. In November, Stillwell was dealt to Kansas City for pitcher Danny Jackson.
Larkin and Stillwell were each named to their respective All-Star teams the following season, but Larkin’s consistently outstanding play would soon leave no doubt that the Reds had made the right decision. In his first full season, Larkin led the league with 29 errors but batted .296 with 49 extra-base hits and 40 stolen bases. He also displayed a tremendous batting eye for a young player, striking out just 24 times in 588 at bats. In November of 1988 he joined a group of All-Stars on a barnstorming tour of Japan, during which he batted .474 and was named the U.S. team’s MVP.
Over the next several seasons, Larkin not only improved his play, but also grew into the role of team leader. In September of 1990, with the Reds struggling to close out the NL West title, he called a clubhouse meeting and ripped his teammates for coasting through the stretch run. The message apparently got through, as the Reds swiftly wrapped up the Division Crown and took aim at a bigger prize. After dispatching with the NL East Champion Pittsburgh Pirates in six games, Cincinnati stunned the baseball world by sweeping the overwhelmingly favored Oakland Athletics in the World Series.
The Reds won their division again in 1995 as the National League paid Larkin the ultimate tribute to his all-around excellence. Despite huge offensive years from sluggers like Dante Bichette and Mike Piazza, Larkin (who posted comparatively modest numbers) became the first National League shortstop to win the MVP since Maury Wills in 1962. Larkin batted .319, and stroked fifteen homers, driving in 66 runs, scoring 98 and swiping a career-high 51 bases. There was little doubt that the voters were rewarding Larkin as much for his defense and steady team leadership as for his offensive production. In the post-season, Larkin further distinguished himself, batting .387 in the postseason as the Reds swept Los Angeles in the Division Series but were stopped by Atlanta in the NLCS.
The Reds couldn’t repeat as division champs in 1996, but Larkin’s performance reached new heights. Although he had hit more than 15 home runs only once in his ten-year major-league career, the defending MVP made history by becoming the first shortstop to ever hit 30 home runs and steal 30 bases in the same season. Larkin shrugged off his newfound power, claiming it was merely the result of using a heavier bat. At the All-Star Game that season Larkin was approached by Ozzie Smith, the defensive paradigm for a generation of shortstops. Smith handed Larkin an autographed bat and told him, “The torch is now yours.”
Despite his successes on the field, Larkin was increasingly showing signs of dissatisfaction. His animosity towards team owner Marge Schott, who had been known to refer to her players with racial slurs, became evident after Schott publicly praised Hitler during the 1996 season. “I think just being associated with the things that have happened in Cincinnati is just an embarrassment,” Larkin told an ESPN interviewer later that year. “I made a comment, I don’t know how many years ago, about, ‘That’s a black eye for the organization.’ And then I made another comment about ‘That’s a black eye for the organization.’ Well, there are no more eyes to be blackened here.”
Larkin’s frustration with the Reds continued during the next two seasons, exacerbated by prolonged slumps brought on various injuries. Despite being named captain before the 1997 season (the first player to hold the honor since Concepcion’s retirement) he showed little tolerance for the deterioration of talent on the Reds and the small-market attitude of the team’s management. “I want another ring,” he said. “That’s my focus. At this point in my career, I have no real individual goals. I’m playing to win now.”
As the financially-strapped Reds entered 1998 in a rebuilding phase, trading away veteran pitchers Dave Burba and Jeff Shaw in the process, Larkin grew tired of waiting for a better team and repeatedly asked general manager Jim Bowden for a trade to a contender. In one interview, Larkin summed up his situation as “being held hostage by a team with no immediate plans to be competitive.” When the team dealt away clubhouse favorite Lenny Harris, Larkin tore the captain’s “C” off his jersey. It its place, he inscribed the numbers of four traded teammates and the terse message, “who’s next?”
Nevertheless, Larkin remained popular among the Cincinnati faithful. After news of his trade request first broke in the papers in June, a fan hung a banner in Riverfront Stadium that read, “Say It Ain’t So, Barry.” Another read, “No Larkin: No Hassle Parkin’.”
One move by Reds management did please the disgruntled star. Larkin’s brother, Stephen, was called up to start the last game of the 1998 season at first base. With Bret and Aaron Boone at second and third, respectively, the Reds lineup was the first in baseball history to feature two sets of siblings.