By Kevin Kelly
Enquirer staff writer
HOUSTON - What 19 years of professional excellence gets a man is respect.
And the occasional wisecrack from an admirer.
Jack Wilson leaned back in his chair Monday and angled his neck to establish deliberate eye contact with Reds shortstop Barry Larkin.
"That old man?" the Pirates' 26-year-old shortstop said, pushing each word through grinning lips.
"You don't want to make him sound old, but he's somebody I've been watching since I was a kid. ... He's one of the best shortstops of all time. He definitely deserves this."
This was Tuesday night.
This was Larkin's 12th and perhaps final All-Star Game.
"We had a meeting in Cincinnati and knew we had four All-Stars," Larkin said. "They named (Sean) Casey and (Danny) Graves and (Ken Griffey) Jr. I thought the fourth would be Paul Wilson.
"Then they said my name and I was like, 'Wow.' I sure did not expect this to happen. I was very happy and very honored."
The honor would appear to be Major League Baseball's.
Here is a 40-year-old playing like a man much younger, and doing so with the only organization he has known.
"I know it's something that doesn't happen much," Larkin said. "So I'm proud of it. I'm proud of how things have gone.
"I'd like to believe that I've made a positive contribution to the organization, and hopefully when I retire I can make a contribution somewhere in the front office. We'll see what happens."
There were 64 players in uniform Tuesday, but only two others were Larkin's age or older.
Astros pitcher Roger Clemens, whose career credentials include six Cy Young Awards, 320 wins and 4,220 strikeouts, is 41 years old.
A 10-3 record and 2.62 first-half ERA helped land him the honor of starting Tuesday's game in his hometown for the National League.
Diamondbacks left-hander Randy Johnson (40) earlier this season became the oldest player to toss a perfect game, and then notched his 4,000th career strikeout.
Larkin's performance this season at one of the game's most demanding positions is as remarkable.
"I enjoy watching the way he plays the game," Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said. "I don't know when he's planning on retiring, but he's going to go down as one of the best shortstops ever."
Through 71 games this season, Larkin is hitting right on his career average (.295) with four home runs and 33 RBI. Larkin's .992 fielding percentage is tied with that of Los Angeles' Cesar Izturis for second among National League starting shortstops.
"It will probably take a lot of medication, a lot of whirlpools, a lot of massages for me to be playing like that at 40," Jack Wilson said. "There's got to be some sort of secret, a fountain of youth he has over there in Cincinnati."
Unless the Ohio River counts, the age defying has been Larkin's doing.
"I've tried to play the game the right way," the 1995 NL MVP said. "I haven't been the home run-hitting guy or the sensational guy. But I have been consistent.
"For people to appreciate and acknowledge that is very flattering."
That consistency is partly why - despite this season being anticipated as his last - Larkin is leaving his options open for a possible return in 2005.
The Reds, who do not have an immediate or clear successor at shortstop, agreed with Larkin earlier this month to cancel the planned retirement ceremony scheduled for Oct. 2 at Great American Ball Park.
"I just don't want to be penned into a corner," Larkin said. "I just wanted to leave all my options open.
"I certainly didn't want to be in a situation where the city of Cincinnati did all these nice things for me - I at least assumed in a retirement ceremony there would be nice things - and then after the season I still wanted to play. In order to avoid all of that I just wanted to cancel the ceremony, keep my options open and retire when I retire."
Barry Larkin's career totals in nine All-Star Game appearances:
At-bats: 18; Hits: 2; Runs: 1; RBI: 2; Stolen bases: 1
Note: Larkin was an All-Star in three other seasons but did not play in the game.
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