A baseball timeout before football breaks the huddle this Friday:
The kid with his mother’s blue eyes lives and works in a new town now.
But somehow he’s kept more stuff in the 5-1-3 than he brought with him. Part of the mass is the framed autograph poster still hanging at the head of the bed. Too precious to travel 1,000 miles and shove into an apartment.
If you were nine years old and you could go to sleep only if you were listening to Marty and Joe and you were always the Reds on the 1994 version of Ken Griffey Jr. Baseball, then Barry Louis Larkin, fellow Cincinnatian, is your man.
When his man went into Cooperstown Sunday, the kid with his mother’s blue eyes was also back east. Somewhere on a beach listening to Marty and Jeff on the phone app, the runs, hits, and errors slapping against the waves.
“Sure, I remember,” the kid is saying Monday morning from his office. “It was over at Eastgate. It was the year after he was MVP and the year he went 30-30.”
Right. 1996. It was at Biggs and Larkin was signing about 200 or so of the MVP posters, a nice drawing with his stat line at the bottom that wasn’t nearly as impressive as watching him play night in and night out in the middle of the diamond with a frosty grace.
The kid’s father knew Larkin through his job as a sportswriter. The father liked him because he always took a call or was in front of his locker no matter the sensitivity of the topic. And if you were a Cincinnati Red in the early ’90s, there was no shortage of sensitive topics.
From race to stadiums to suspensions. The kid’s father always admired Larkin for how handled the enormous pressure of that daily tinderbox with unflappable class, heaped on the fact he was doing it in his hometown.
The kid showed up with his father at the back of the line as Larkin began signing the poster. When it was his turn and Larkin saw the father standing there as if he were waiting in front of his locker with a notepad and tape recorder, he smiled the Larkin smile.
“What are you doing waiting?” Larkin asked. “Why didn’t you come up to the front of the line?”
“Nope,” I told him. “If I waited with my father in line for Yaz, he’s waiting for you.”
Carl Michael Yastrzemski. Hynes Auditorium. Downtown Boston. 1968. The winter after the Year of the Yaz. Triple Crown. MVP. The line was longer than the Impossible Dream Red Sox’ 100-1 shot.
Larkin laughed and the father introduced him to the kid with his mother’s blue eyes. The kid reached out his hand.
“I think it surprised him I shook his hand,” said the kid, who still remembers the inscription.
There has been the furious stampede of the intervening 16 years. High school. Football games. Baseball games. Girls. Two college degrees. Two beat-up cars. A first paycheck. Yet the inscription is as fresh as that day in the spring.
“He put my name,” the kid recalled Monday. “Best wishes. Barry Larkin. 11.”
A few months later, they were at Riverfront. Sept. 22, 1996, when Larkin hit the deep fly against the Cards to become the first 30-30 shortstop in history. Whoops. High fives. Only then did the kid who always keeps score when he goes to a Reds game carefully fill in the pencil diamond.
“I bet when that room is finally cleaned out,” the kid said, “we’ll find that scorecard. We’ll find a lot of scorecards.”
But that’s the nice thing about a boyhood hero, isn’t it? You don’t need the scorecard to remember a smile and a handshake, or an autograph, or a simple nod.
The kid still keeps a scorecard when he goes to a Reds game in his new town. And he’ll go once a series. Someday, the Larkin poster is going to catch up with him.
“I still remember,” the kid said Monday.
Now when they go see Yaz and Barry Louis Larkin, they won’t have to wait.
There are no lines in front of the plaques at Cooperstown.
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