Tuesday, February 29, 2000

Larkin's dollars vs. Reds' sense

Talks start today on new contract for Reds' captain

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        SARASOTA, Fla. — When the time comes, Barry Larkin should go out gracefully. He should end his baseball career where he started it, a hometown hero of the Cincinnati Reds.

        “The quotation that I've been giving is that I've always felt that Barry Larkin should finish his career as a Red,” General Manager Jim Bowden said Monday. “He is to Cincinnati what George Brett is to Kansas City, Carl Yastrzemski is to Boston, Tony Gwynn is to San Diego.”

        What he is to Carl Lindner's cash flow is another question.

        Prevailing sentiment and perfect symmetry suggest the Reds make a deal to extend Larkin's contract beyond its 2000 expiration. Marketplace realities could complicate matters.

        Agent Eric Goldschmidt is expected at the Reds spring training complex today for the formal opening of Larkin's contract talks. Predicting their course, however, is perilous.

        Larkin will be 36 years old in April, and the Reds captain has been laboring for years with a below-market contract and is now making barely half of what the New York Yankees will pay their shortstop, Derek Jeter, this season.

        The Reds, meanwhile, are fresh from a $116 million commitment to Ken Griffey Jr., and unlikely to embrace a top-dollar, long-term proposal for a player who is, at least chronologically, past his prime.

        Sentiment says to sign him. Wisdom says to wait. Experience tells you that it might take months to find the middle ground, and that Larkin and/or his agent may say some regrettable things before it's over.

        “I'm comfortable and confident that it will work out,” Larkin said Monday, lounging before his locker after the morning workout. “I don't feel any other way ... I'd be interested in seeing how much money would be available if I were a free agent, but it's really about being comfortable. If it was about the money, I would have been gone a long time ago.”

        As recently as 1998, Larkin was fairly aching to get out. He thought the Reds were resigned to rebuilding and payroll reduction, and he preferred the chance to compete for a pennant. He complained bitterly when the Reds swapped Bret Boone for Denny Neagle and Michael Tucker, convinced the Reds had acquired Neagle and Tucker only to trade them.

        Yet the cost-cutting had ceased, and the acquisition of slugger Greg Vaughn revealed the Reds' renewed seriousness. Larkin's enthusiasm was rekindled, and his AstroTurf-weary legs regained enough spring to enable him to play in a career-high 161 games.

        Some of us who had thought he was starting to slip in the field were forced to reevaluate. The extraordinary range of second baseman Pokey Reese allowed Larkin to shade to his right. The mobility of third baseman Aaron Boone allowed him to play deeper. The result was 14 errors in 635 chances, and a reprieve from the rumblings about Reese supplanting Larkin at shortstop.

        “My preference is to stay at second base and have Larkin play another seven or eight years,” Reese said Monday. “To me, he's the best shortstop in the game. He's not as flashy as a Rey Ordonez, but he makes all the plays.”

        Defensively, Ordonez probably represents the current state of the shortstop art. Offensively, Seattle's Alex Rodriguez is probably baseball's best shortstop, and could land the first $20 million-a-year contact when he attains free agency this winter. The going rate goes up just about every time you blink anymore.

        Yet because of his age, Griffey's below-market deal and the development of prospect Travis Dawkins, Larkin's leverage with the Reds is comparatively limited. He won't get close to Rodriguez dollars, and he may not be able to get as long a commitment as he might wish. If he wants to finish his career in Cincinnati, Barry Larkin may have to make more concessions.

        “I'd love to stay here,” Larkin said. “I want to be on a competitive team, and the commitment is there (to winning) ... They just have to work it out financially, recognizing the restrictions that you have in Cincinnati. If you structure these things creatively, there are a lot of things you can do.”

        Monday, Larkin was full of happy talk. Today, he starts haggling. Stay tuned.

        E-mail Tim Sullivan at tsullivan@enquirer.com.