Sunday, April 08, 2001

Larkin defying Father Time

At 37, Reds SS still excelling at one of the game's most demanding positions

By John Fay
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Barry Larkin is hitting .526.
(AP photos)
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        MILWAUKEE — Pete Harnisch's frustration, as it sometimes does, overflowed slightly but noticeably after the Reds' 6-1 loss Saturday to the Milwaukee Brewers.

        Barry Larkin has a body like you see on the cover of those men's fitness magazines. Washboard abs. Sculptured chest. Lean, muscular limbs. He feels good.

        “No aches and pains in the morning,” he says.

        That's good, because Larkin is about to enter uncharted territory.

        He turns 37 on April 28. Thirty-seven is young if you're trying to buy life insurance or climb the corporate ladder. But if you're a major-league shortstop, it's old, bordering on ancient.

        Larkin is the oldest starting shortstop in baseball and one of only seven over 30. The average age of the National League shortstops? Twenty-five.

      A look at Hall of Fame shortstops and future Hall of Famers shows how they drop off in production in their late 30s. Phil Rizzuto hit .271 at 36 and .195 at 37. Luis Aparicio hit .313 at 36 and .232 at 37.

        Pee Wee Reese hit .308 at 36 and .257 at 38. Arky Vaughn retired at 36, Lou Boudreau at 35. Ernie Banks moved from shortstop to first base at 30. Cal Ripken went from short to third at 37. Robin Young moved to center field before he turned 30.

        There are rare exceptions. Ozzie Smith hit .295 at 37 and led the NL in fielding percentage for shortstops at 39. Honus Wagner hit .324 at 38 and also led the NL with 102 RBI.

Larkin tags out Pittburgh's Abraham Nunez last week at Cinergy Field.
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          Larkin, likewise, is a good candidate to fight off the aging process.

        “Barry's as extraordinary an athlete as I've seen in baseball,” Reds general manager Jim Bowden said. “He always worked to keep himself in shape in the offseason and during the season. He's continued to play at a Hall of Fame level.”

        “If you just looked at his body, you'd think he was in his late 20s,” said Reds medical director Dr. Tim Kremchek. “Part of that is the way he takes care of himself, but it's mostly genetics.”

        Larkin says he doesn't feel any different than he did five — or even 10 — years ago.

        “I felt good then,” he said. “I feel good now.”

        Larkin has hit .309, .293 and .313 the last three years. Together, that actually increased his career average to .300 entering this season. But Larkin is not getting to as many balls as he did five years ago. Until 1994, Larkin never averaged fewer than 4.5 total chances per game. The last three years, he's averaged 4.00, 3.94 and 4.04.

        “He's probably lost a little bit of range,” said Ron Oester, a Reds coach and Larkin's former double-play partner. “But he anticipates hitters so well. He hasn't lost anything off his arm.

        “Barry's always going to be able to hit. He'll be able to hit when he's 45.”

        Larkin could extend his career by moving to another position. Shortstop is second to catching in demands on your body.

        This is a big issue because Larkin is in an unusual situation. Second baseman Pokey Reese has had “Reds shortstop of the future” stamped on him since the early '90s.

        Reese has won back-to-back Gold Gloves at second base. His arm and range are better than Larkin's.

        Larkin has staved off the move to another position. But he would consider moving in the future.

        “If I could really help the team, I'd consider it,” he said.

        There is no plan to move him.

        “I haven't thought about it,” Reds manager Bob Boone said. “The question is now. He's our shortstop, and he's going to play a lot of games.”

        But Boone will say Reese's future is at short.

        Bowden thought Reese would have taken over at shortstop a long time ago.

        “I said when Barry signed his five-year contract (after the 1995 season) that, by the end of it, he was going to have to move to another position,” Bowden said. “Now we've done a three-year extension, and it hasn't happened yet.

        “He's still the best all-around shortstop in the league.”

        Bowden said he won't force a move.

        “But if it's better for the team that he plays another position, Barry will be willing to move,” Bowden said. “He's always been a team player. His batting average would be 20 points higher if he didn't give himself up to move the runner over and things like that.”

        The circumstances around Larkin's contract extension showed there were those in the organization who doubted he could continue to be an effective everyday shortstop.

        Remember, the Reds traded him to the New York Mets. Larkin rejected the deal. Then owner Carl Lindner stepped in and got the three-year, $27 million deal done.

        The reason the baseball people didn't offer Larkin that kind of package, a Reds source says, is they saw a drop-off in his performance in the field.

        The Reds also consulted insurance actuary tables for baseball players that showed shortstops in their late 30s tend to miss a lot of playing time because of injuries.

        Smith, who before Larkin was the NL's best shortstop, played at least 132 games for 15 straight years before he turned 39. After that, he never played more than 96.

        Larkin won't reach 39 until the final year of his contract. But he has never been a particularly durable player. He's averaged 126 games a year in his 14 years in the big leagues. He's been on the disabled list eight times. But the only thing that landed him on the DL more than once is his left knee, on which had arthroscopic surgery last year.

        “He's in real good shape,” Kremchek said. “He's had a lot of freak injuries. Nothing chronic. I think the fact that we cleaned out his knee will help jump-start him.”

        It's a simple matter of physiology that age eventually robs athletes of speed and quickness. At 30, people generally begin to lose muscle mass and gain fat. That slows a person down.

        “Some people think it starts as early as 25,” Kremchek said.

        Still, some athletes continue to perform at high levels into their 40s. Smith was one. Washington cornerback Darrell Green is one of the NFL's fastest players, and he's 41. Nolan Ryan led the American League in strikeouts at 40 — and at 41, 42 and 43.

        Reese marvels at Larkin.

        “He's awesome,” Reese said. “He's a Hall of Famer. MVP. All-Star. Gold Glove. World Series ring. And he's still going strong. He hasn't lost a thing.”

        The Reds don't test their players in 40-yard dashes as NFL teams do. But they measure body fat. Larkin is under 10 percent.

        “It's been the same the last five years,” said Lance Sewell, the team's conditioning coordinator. “That's very good for anyone. For a 36-year-old, it's off the charts.”

        Larkin is helped by playing in an era when players treat baseball as a year-around job. He never came to spring training needing to get in shape.

        “I didn't do it because I wanted a long career,” he said. “It's just the way I am.”

        He still carries about 190 pounds on his 6-foot frame.

        Another four or five productive years would enhance his chances of making the Hall of Fame. Of the 16 shortstops in the Hall, Larkin has more home runs than all but one. He has more stolen bases than all but two. His batting average (.301) ranks him sixth.

        Larkin says he doesn't have any goals as far as stats.

        “I've never done that,” he said. “Because once you reach the goal, what do you do then?”

        And he doesn't have any plans to retire.

        “That's something I really don't think about,” he said. “I just play. I'll keep playing as long as I feel good.”


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