Tuesday, July 13, 1999

Larkin's tune: Unhappy with Cinergy turf

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        BOSTON — Barry Larkin has changed his tune, but the old malady lingers on.

        The Cincinnati Reds' shortstop, captain and 10-time All-Star is again making trade-me noises, this time from the unusual perspective of first place. He is choosing his words more carefully than he did last winter, but the net result is roughly the same.

        Larkin let it be known Monday that unless the Reds convert the playing surface of Cinergy Field from artificial turf to natural grass, he is unlikely to extend his stay beyond his current contract. Since that contract expires at the end of next season, and Cinergy Field is itself a lame duck, the prospects of an amicable settlement are decidedly dubious.

        “I'm getting to a point in my career where I've got to play on grass,” Larkin said during an All-Star game interview session. “I definitely feel the effect of playing on turf. It's important for me to stay in Cincinnati, but it's even more important that I play as long as I can. In order to do that, I've got to be healthy. In order to be healthy, I've got to play on grass.”

        Though the scientific evidence is sketchy, ballplayers generally believe AstroTurf tends to cut short their careers. They feel it in their bones and their joints and their diminished enthusiasm. Some players would prefer an IRS audit, a root canal and a blind date with Linda Tripp to a single season on synthetic surfaces.

        “If horses won't eat it,” Dick Allen said, “I don't want to play on it.”

Be careful what you wish
        Larkin would have been wise to take this tack last winter, to lobby for a trade on behalf of his longevity. Most of the motives players site in seeking trades — money, playing time, endorsement potential, championship contention — are essentially selfish. A player's desire to prolong his career as long as possible is sure to attract more sympathy.

        Though he is a local product who has had an exemplary career with the Reds — a Hall of Fame career, conceivably — Larkin squandered much of his accumulated goodwill with his progressively strident pleas for a trade. He asserted some inalienable right to play for a winning team, and intimated that the trade that sent Bret Boone to Atlanta for Denny Neagle was tantamount to surrender.

        The mid-season standings have made Larkin's previous concerns seem almost comical. Through 85 games, the Reds' record is second only to Atlanta's in the National League. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Dodgers of Davey Johnson — once perceived as the best fit for Larkin — represent rock bottom in the National League West.

        Be careful what you wish for. It might mean last place.

        The AstroTurf argument is better because only Larkin can tell what toll plastic grass has taken on his knees, his ankles, his back, his head.

        “When you play every day on this stuff, you take a beating,” he said. “I know this year, more than any other, I can definitely feel (the difference) when we play on grass. I can feel that springiness, that youthfulness coming back in my legs.”

Turf decision
        What the Reds must decide is whether there is enough life left in Larkin's 35-year-old legs to justify tearing up the turf three years before they tear down the stadium. Managing executive John Allen declined to comment on that question Monday. General Manager Jim Bowden acknowledged that all parties would prefer grass at Cinergy, but that its feasibility was unclear.

        “I think it would be worth it, no doubt,” Reds first baseman Sean Casey said. “Three years is a long time, and maybe that's three years you add on to a player's career. That turf eats you up after a while.”

        Larkin has made this case to management, and awaits a response. If the Reds are unwilling to commit to grass seed, they must consider trading Larkin or face losing him as a free agent next year. They must also consider whether Larkin could be using the AstroTurf for leverage in search of a sweeter deal.

        “When the day comes that we get to serious discussions,” Larkin said, “one of the most important things is the surface we play on.”

        How important, only he knows.

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