Games That Matter

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Barry Larkin, Retired / Shortstop / Cincinnati Reds - The Players' Tribune

This wasn’t one of those bottom-of-the-ninth, two outs, bases loaded, Game 7 moments we all dreamed about when we were kids. It was much less glamorous than that. In fact, it was a fairly meaningless late September at-bat of my career. But it’s one I’ll remember forever.

It was the bottom of the eighth inning in the last game of the 1998 season. The Reds weren’t going to the playoffs, so we were six outs away from going home for the winter. I stepped into the batter’s box against a September call-up, a flamethrower who had just come into the game. He’s fresh and he’s young, so he’s up there trying to throw harder than he ever has in his life. He’s throwing 100 mph. He’s got something to prove.

The kid reaches back and fires a fastball.  He has no idea where the ball’s going when it leaves his hand.

Until it sticks me square in the ribs.

Great, I’m thinking as I make my way to first base. Here I am, a 12 year veteran, a nine-time All-Star and former NL MVP, who normally wouldn’t even have been at the plate in a situation like that. But this wasn’t a normal game.

I finished the day 0-for-3, but the important thing is that one Larkin did get a hit that day for the Cincinnati Reds.

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I never got to play competitive baseball with my youngest brother, Stephen, when we were growing up. I’m nine years older than he is, so by the time he started playing Little League, high school and college baseball, I had already moved on.

In high school, he was a better football player than baseball player. If he could have pursued a football career, he would have, and he would have been great. He was an awesome player. But he developed a heart condition called cardiomyopathy, which would eventually keep him from playing contact sports like football. So instead of following his football dreams, he went to the University of Texas to play baseball.  At UT, he played in two College World Series and eventually got drafted by the Texas Rangers in the ’94 draft.

After a few years of bouncing around in the minors, he found himself in the Reds organization. As that 1998 season ground to a close and the Reds were eliminated from playoff contention, our general manager, Jim Bowden, had an idea.

The important thing is that one Larkin did get a hit that day for the Cincinnati Reds.

We already had the Boone brothers—Bret and Aaron—in the Reds infield. So for the last game of the 1998 season, the Reds called up my brother, Stephen, from Chattanooga, and placed him in the starting lineup. I hit in the two-hole and Stephen hit third in the lineup, so we hit back-to-back. He started at first base.

It was the first time in Major League Baseball history that two sets of brothers played together for the same team in the same game. It was a pretty cool experience to stand at shortstop and look to my right and see Aaron at third, then to my left and see his brother, Bret, at second, then to look across the diamond and see my brother over at first base.

It was the first time I ever got to play on the same field as my youngest brother.

He was 0-for-2 to start the game, and in the bottom of the sixth, after I flew out, he hit a ground ball through the hole between first and second base for his first Major League hit. I just remember jumping off the bench when it went through the hole. I was so happy for him. He came out of the game, replaced by a pinch-runner, and we sat on the bench together, just kind of enjoying it.

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I stayed in the game, and I was 0-for-3 when the bottom of the eighth came around. My manager, Jack McKeon, came up to me in the dugout and asked me if I wanted to go out for one more at-bat, to try and get a hit so my brother and I could each have one in the same game. I thought, Okay, I’m going to grind out this at-bat. I’m going to try to really throw one out there and get a hit.

But instead of a hit and a great story, I took that fastball in the ribs and had a contusion for about two-and-a-half months.

We often get so caught up looking ahead to the playoffs that we don’t see all the cool things that happen around Major League Baseball as the regular season winds down.

I didn’t get a hit that day like Stephen did, but for those two-and-a-half months, I had a pretty constant reminder of that game and what it meant to my brother and me. Now, 17 years after that bruise has faded and healed, I still remember that game as one of the coolest things I’ve ever been a part of in baseball.

October is only a couple of days away, and it’s a special time of year. Of all the games I played in my 19-year MLB career, I miss October baseball the most. There’s really nothing like it.

But the thing about October is that we often get so caught up looking ahead to the playoffs that we don’t see all the cool things that happen around baseball as the regular season winds down. I’m not talking about the pennant races. Those are always exciting, and we’re always watching. I’m talking about the little things that happen around the league with some of the non-contenders. Like the young guys getting extra time to show us what they’ve got. Like teams taking more chances and trying new things because they have nothing to lose.

Like the Larkin brothers getting a chance to share a Major League field together.

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That hit turned out to be the only hit of Stephen’s Major League career. When the 1999 season started, he was back in Chattanooga, then he played in the Independent League for a couple of years before hanging it up in 2005. Today, we still have a very tight relationship. We travel a lot, and we are both into player development, so he’s one of my hitting instructors wherever I go.

I’ll always remember those October games in a Reds uniform, and I’m looking forward to October baseball this season as much as anybody. But there are still a couple of games left before the playoffs, and some pretty special things can happen around the league in these last few games, too. To this day, that final game of the 1998 season still stands out as one of the most special games I was ever a part of.

Even if the stats say I wasn’t the best Larkin in the lineup that day.

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Barry Larkin played 19 seasons in Major League Baseball with the Cincinnati Reds, earning 12 All-Star appearances and one World Series title. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2012. He’s also a spokesperson for Maytag, the official washer and dryer of MLB.

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