Numbers say Larkin should play elsewhere

Monday, July 6, 1998

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Barry Larkin is a Red with the blues. He fails to see the logic underlying Jim Bowden's housecleaning, and he is frustrated that he can't seem to get in the path of the broom.

The Cincinnati shortstop has stripped the captain's "C" from his jersey and Sunday replaced it with the uniform numbers of four departed comrades. Beside the neatly inscribed numbers of Dave Burba and David Weathers and Lenny Harris and Jeff Shaw was a large question mark.

"I took the "C' off because I had to clear a spot to put my fallen teammates," Larkin explained.

The question mark signified, "Who's next?"

Chris Welsh called Larkin's graffiti "bush league" on the Reds telecast Sunday afternoon. General Manager Jim Bowden said it was an emotional response he was willing to tolerate, but only for the day. Larkin said he was prepared to end his protest, and would consider wearing the captain's "C" again after the All-Star break.

In a related development, the Reds have won nine out of their last 10 games. Perhaps not since the movie Major League has a team responded so well to management-ordered adversity.

Still Reds' best player

Sunday's 6-1 conquest of the St. Louis Cardinals completed a three-game sweep and left the mighty Mark McGwire without a Cincinnati notch on his home run belt.

This is not to suggest that the home team has turned the corner, or even that it has found its way, but the Reds may be getting good enough to beat the bad teams. You've got to start somewhere.

Larkin shouldn't be blamed for wanting to play for a winning club. He is 34 years old, has paid all the appropriate dues and has just seen a close friend (Harris) shipped out for dubious relief help. Yet that doesn't obligate management to make a deal. Larkin should be prepared, in fact, for an impasse.

All-Star selections notwithstanding, Barry Larkin is still the best player the Reds have. But his age, his salary ($5.3 million) and his health history (seven times on the disabled list) have turned what once would have been a bidding war into a bargain hunt.

Price for Larkin too high

San Diego likes Larkin, but not at the price of its top prospects. The Cardinals had some interest, but can no longer presume to be part of the pennant race. Unless some front-running team suffers an injury before the trading deadline, Larkin may be stuck here indefinitely.

No player has an inherent right to play for a contending club. Any player who signs a long-term contract must be willing to accept that last place could be one of the consequences.

"Barry's got to take the young kids and lead them," Bowden said Sunday. "The way he plays the game, I'm glad the young players are able to watch him."

Larkin made two defensive plays Sunday worth a star in your scorebook, and he scored the go-ahead run after a sixth-inning single. If he is sometimes peevish, he is too proud to carry his personal grudges onto the playing field.

"The game itself is great," he said, tugging on a cap from the 1997 World Series. "Unfortunately, it comes with problems that cloud the purity of the game. Trades are one problem; economics are another."

Economically, trading Larkin makes terrific sense. It would free the Reds of close to $13 million in future salary -- money that might be better spent stockpiling young players. Politically, it's a tough sell.

Baseball fans will accept a certain amount of austerity if they can see the purpose. But to trade Barry Larkin just to unload his contract requires a leap of faith some people aren't prepared to make.

Sunday, a banner in the red seats warned of the potential attendance impact of a change at shortstop: "No Larkin No Hassle Parkin," it read.

Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

SULLIVAN ARCHIVE