The Football Redshirt
Feb. 26, 2010
Holding numerous scholarship offers from several of the top football programs around the country, Barry Larkin ultimately settled on Michigan, where coach Bo Schembechler elected to redshirt Larkin in his freshman season.
The game of baseball, and specifically the Cincinnati Reds, would be the ultimate beneficiaries of that decision.
A standout student-athlete in football and baseball, Larkin's top priority was excelling on the gridiron, while baseball was a sport he'd play simply for pleasure.
"Football was the big thing for me," Larkin said. "I was recruited more for football out of high school than for baseball. Football was the sport for me. I was always good at baseball, but it was more of I was an athlete playing baseball rather than a baseball player playing baseball. I played baseball because I enjoyed playing baseball."
While everyone would come to know Larkin for his smooth style at shortstop, the Cincinnati native was recruited by the major football powers of the country based on his shutdown ability as a defensive back and ultimately chose the Wolverines because of their legendary coach.
"Bo came down the year before to recruit my brother, who was a year older than I," said Larkin, whose brother would ultimately play for Notre Dame. "Bo told my mother that next year he was going to come and he was going to recruit her other son and make sure he got him. Bo and I formed a great relationship and that was one of the reasons I went to Michigan."
Growing up in Cincinnati, the Larkin boys come from a pedigree of athletic success. Both parents were student-athletes, their father was a baseball player and their mother excelled in volleyball, so a future in sports was almost a given for Larkin.
Combining the first-rate football and baseball facilities, the support both the football and baseball programs received from the athletic department and the alumni base and the close-knit feel to the university, Larkin chose Michigan because it felt similar to home.
"The most important thing was that I felt at ease, I felt at home," he said. "I remember having a feeling that I wasn't too far away from home. "
Larkin was also given the chance to excel at both sports during his career. Entering his freshman season in Ann Arbor, he was redshirted by Schembechler, giving him the opportunity to fully concentrate on baseball.
Having never seriously devoted time to baseball, Larkin found himself having immediate success on the diamond during his first year with the team. He hit .352 from the plate, had five home runs and 37 runs batted in, stole 13 bases and started all 57 games for the Wolverines.
The shortstop was named the Big Ten Tournament Most Outstanding Player after leading Michigan to the Big Ten Championship, and helped guide the Wolverines to a third-place finish in the first of two College World Series appearances during Larkin's career.
It became obvious he was no longer an athlete playing baseball - he was now a baseball player beginning what would turn into a Hall of Fame career.
He never played a down on the football field at Michigan Stadium.
"That was really the first time that I just had an opportunity to concentrate on one sport and when I concentrated on baseball I did really, really well," Larkin said. "I thought at that point, maybe I should play baseball. I had been away from football for a year, I didn't have some of the nicks and bruises that I had playing football and I did really well and I decided at that particular time that I was going to play baseball."
During his collegiate career, Larkin would emerge as one of the greatest Wolverines of all-time. He was named the Big Ten's first two-time Player of the Year and a two-time All-American in 1984 and 1985. He concluded his Michigan career among the all-time top 10 in numerous categories, including triples (third with 13), runs (fifth with 172), stolen bases (ninth with 44) and batting average (10th at .361).
His final season in Ann Arbor capped a career that assured him of being a first-round pick in the Major League Baseball Draft. His 1985 season ranks among the best ever, raking in the top 10 of numerous individual single season marks, including triples (8), home runs (16), RBI (66) and runs scored (72).
And when it came time for the major leagues, Larkin knew Michigan had prepared him for just about anything he could encounter at the next level.
"I think I grew up," he said. "All the social skills and being able to learn from my mistakes, deal with failure, be challenged, all of those things are things I think helped me to develop as a young man. The feeling of being close to home that allowed me the ability to grow as a person. I think that's one of the reasons why I had a good solid foundation and one of the reasons why I did well in the major leagues."
The fourth pick in the 1985 draft by his hometown Cincinnati Reds, Larkin began immediately in Double-A, and after one season in the minors, was called up to the big show in 1986.
That began a 19-year career with his hometown team, highlighted by three Gold Glove Awards, 12 All-Star game appearances, the 1995 Most Valuable Player Award and the 1993 Roberto Clemente Man of the Year. But most special to Larkin was the Reds' sweep of the Oakland Athletics in the 1990 World Series, where he hit .353 to clinch Cincinnati's most recent championship.
What routinely set Larkin apart from others was his willingness to lead and help others.
In 1996 and 1998, Larkin was a finalist for the Branch Rickey Award, which honors "service over self." In 1997, the Larkin-led Caring Team of Athletes, Inc., a national organization of professional athletes that raises money for children's charities, made a $25,000 contribution to local Kentucky schools that suffered from flooding, and he routinely hosted underprivileged children at home games as part of Barry's Bunch program.
While his impact stretched beyond the dugout, he made sure his presence was felt among his teammates as well.
"One of the things I pride myself on and did while I was playing, was my interaction with the other players on the team," Larkin said. "A great player not only plays well, but makes people around him better and people will learn from him, and I tried to model my game after that. I felt like my job was to, of course go do my job, but to help the coaching staff or the front office and do some of the intangible things to help mold the team and keep the team together and that was the thing I was most proud of."
That mantra remained with him well after his retirement in 2004. Larkin recently returned from Taiwan as a part of the U.S. State Department's Sports Envoy Program. The program enlists the help of national sports leagues, athletes and coaches to serve as ambassadors of sport in overseas programs that include conducting clinics, visiting schools and speaking to youth.
In Taiwan, Larkin conducted six baseball clinics, visited an orphanage and met with at-risk youth around the country. Larkin made a similar trip in 2006 to Columbia.
"We talked to a lot of young people over there about the importance of education, sports, and other things," he said. "I talked about life skills, challenges, and personal stories and the challenges we had. We talked about getting through barriers and overcoming obstacles."
After his retirement, he served as a special assistant to the general manager with the Washington Nationals. Although he won't rule out a future in the major leagues as a manager or in a front office, Larkin is enjoying his current role as an analyst with the MLB Network. And with three kids in their teens, his role with the network allows him to remain close to his family and help guide them into their collegiate experiences.
This past summer, Larkin was inducted into the College Baseball Hall of Fame. He was also on the ballot for the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame for the first time this year, receiving more than 50 percent of the vote, and many experts believe he's got a great shot of getting into Cooperstown.
And the path Larkin carved to get here all started in Ann Arbor.
"I think the biggest thing is not only the quality of education, but the opportunity to grow up in a controlled environment and one that's conducive to learning and growing and maturing," he said. "For me that was everything. I was around some great people.
"No matter where I go, I find the Block `M' or the Go Blue, it's amazing how many people have ties to or respect Michigan from an institutional standpoint."