April 27, 2010
By Courtney Ratkowiak
It was a Friday in August at Wrigley Field, and Barry Larkin was about to step to the plate for his first-ever road game at-bat in the major leagues. The 22-year-old, just a few months removed from one of the most storied careers in Michigan baseball history, had been called up to play for the Cincinnati Reds a week before.
As the announcer introduced the rookie and the Wrigley Field organist started to play, Larkin suddenly heard the first few booming notes of "The Victors" resonate through the ballpark. He looked up, trying to find the source of the sound, and saw his teammates waving at him.
"I just kind of thought, 'All right! That is cool as heck,'" Larkin said. "I can't tell you how extensive the tradition of the block 'M' reaches. The extent of it, it's just amazing."
He couldn't have guessed on that day in 1986 that four years later, the tradition of the block 'M' would extend to his 1990 World Series championship team, on which Larkin played with former Michigan teammates Chris Sabo (1981-83) and Hal Morris (1984-86). Sabo, in full uniform and holding a coffee mug, would sit in the Reds clubhouse a few hours before Sunday games and blast "The Victors" through the clubhouse loudspeakers.
On May 1, almost 24 years after that major league road game debut, Larkin will return to Ann Arbor once more as he becomes just the sixth Wolverine in baseball history to have his number retired by the university.
The shortstop started every game during his three years at Michigan (1983-85). He twice earned All-America honors, helped the Wolverines to two College World Series berths (1983 and 1984) and was a starter for the U.S. baseball team at the 1984 Summer Olympics.
During his 19-year professional career with the Reds, he played in 12 All-Star Games, won three Gold Gloves and earned National League MVP in 1995. He had a strong showing in his first year on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot in 2010, garnering 51.6 percent of the vote (75 percent is required for election).
But Larkin's journey at Michigan didn't start with dreams of someday playing in the World Series -- or even in the College World Series. He had come to Ann Arbor to play football.
When Larkin was a three-sport standout at Moeller High School in Cincinnati, legendary Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler came to the family home to recruit Larkin's older brother, Mike, a linebacker who eventually chose to play for Notre Dame. After Mike made his decision, Schembechler told Larkin's mother that he'd "be back the following year to get the next Larkin kid."
Larkin had been recruited by Texas, USC and Notre Dame as a defensive back, and the Cincinnati Reds drafted him in the second round out of high school. But he wanted to play for Schembechler.
When Larkin got to Ann Arbor in 1983, Schembechler redshirted him and gave him permission to play baseball for coach Bud Middaugh that season.
"It just so happened that baseball turned out to be the sport for me, but in my mind, I was thinking football, football, football," Larkin said. "When I did speak to Bud Middaugh about baseball, he told me the goal was to get to Omaha, Nebraska (for the College World Series). And I was thinking, 'You know, the goal really is to get to the Rose Bowl.'"
At first, focusing solely on baseball proved to be an adjustment. Though Larkin was used to associating football with cold weather, the Cincinnati native wasn't used to playing baseball in the snow -- so the freshman wore a parka and gloves while playing in an early-season game. And when Middaugh singled Larkin out and chastised him for his poor play that day, it left an impression that still resonates 27 years later.
"I was successful in high school, and that just had never happened before," Larkin said. "Of course, my football coach would get in my face if I didn't complete an assignment or something like that, but in football, that's the way it's supposed to be and it's motivation. But in baseball, that had never happened.
"It was an eye-opening experience for me. And I remember making a conscious effort to grow up, accept the fact it was going to be cold and not use that as an excuse."
Larkin took the experience to heart and was immediately successful, finishing his freshman year with a .352 batting average and earning Big Ten Tournament MVP honors en route to Omaha. And though the Rose Bowl had once sounded appealing, he realized his athletic goals had changed. After the 1983 season, Larkin met with Schembechler and told him he wasn't going to play football.
Even though Larkin never played a down at Michigan Stadium, Schembechler never let him forget his original commitment. During the next two seasons, the coach consistently visited Larkin at baseball practice, whether it was to call the shortstop a "big sissy" for choosing baseball or to joke that as a former left-handed pitcher at Miami (Ohio), he knew exactly what to pitch in order to strike out Larkin's teammates. Despite Schembechler's constant teasing, the multi-sport athlete knew he had chosen to focus on the correct sport.
Larkin entered his freshman year as the top recruit in a group that included five future MLB draft picks. Then-senior captain Jeff Jacobson and the other upperclassmen jokingly referred to the talent-loaded class as the "cocky freshmen." But Larkin quickly learned how to fit in with his teammates.
"We were all recruited and good players, but there's a difference between that and a surefire major leaguer, which everyone thought he was from the beginning," first baseman Ken Hayward (1982-85) said. "To know that about a guy but still know he can just fit into the team and be 'one of the guys' is really the highest compliment you can pay him."
And even while enjoying a successful professional career, Larkin never forgot he was "one of the guys" at Michigan. In the 1985 MLB draft, after his junior year, he was selected fourth overall by the Cincinnati Reds. The same year, Hayward wasn't drafted, despite leaving Michigan with the school records for most games played, runs batted in, hits and highest batting average.
Near the end of that summer, a letter written on hotel stationery arrived at Hayward's parents' house. It was from Larkin, who was in the middle of his first season in the minor leagues. In it, Larkin thanked Hayward for being a good teammate, told him how much it meant to play with him at Michigan and encouraged him to continue playing baseball.
"That first of all speaks to what a classy guy he is, and secondly, it means a lot to know a guy like that thought that much of the way I played," Hayward said. "He talked about how I was better than the guys he was playing with (in the minors), and don't give up and all that. I'll never forget it."
The gesture epitomized Larkin's reputation as down-to-earth and approachable. First baseman Hal Morris (1984-86), who played with Larkin for two years at Michigan and 10 years with the Reds, said the one consistent aspect of Larkin's game was that he was an unselfish player, both as an amateur and as a professional.
"He was willing and able to adjust his game to the needs of the club," Morris said. "It wasn't about racking up numbers, which is very commonplace in professional baseball, where the guys are not really concerned about the outcome of the game as long as they get two or three hits. He did whatever we needed."
Larkin said that team-focused attitude started under Middaugh, who taught his teams to focus on the fundamentals while minimizing the importance of setting individual records or inflating statistics. And during the cutthroat competition of the minor leagues and the constant pressure to play well in the majors, Larkin felt one of the biggest achievements of his career was staying true to the way he learned to play baseball in Ann Arbor.
"Individual accomplishments were non-existent for me at Michigan," Larkin said. "I certainly didn't think that way, and I wasn't programmed that way.
"I'm most proud of the fact that I learned and I executed playing the game of baseball the right way. When people talk about me as a player, professionally, I'm proud that was ingrained at me at the University of Michigan."