BY ROB CENTORANI
Their names are synonymous with Cincinnati and Chicago.
Like Skyline Chili and thick-crust pizza, Barry Larkin and the late Ron Santo were staples in the cities where they put their Hall of Fame skills on display.
On a steamy Sunday at the Clark Sports Center, Reds and Cubs followers who made up the vast majority of the estimated 18,000 fans in attendance showed their appreciation during the Baseball Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony.
“I love you, Barry!” one Reds fan shouted during Larkin’s induction speech.
Larkin responded, “And I love you, my man.”
All 19 of Larkin’s major league seasons were spent in his hometown of Cincinnati. Though Santo’s formative years were spent in Seattle, he played all 15 of his big-league years in Chicago — 14 with the Cubs and the last with the White Sox. He then became a popular broadcaster of Cubs games for WGN Radio from 1990 to 2010.
“Perhaps more than anything, he loved the Cubs and the Cubs fans,” said Santo’s widow, Vicki, who delivered an inspirational speech that centered on her husband’s 51-yearbattle with diabetes that ended Dec. 3, 2010.
Larkin, 48, garnered 86.4 percent of the vote from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America to earn entry into the Hall in his third year on the ballot. The slick-fielding shortstop won three Gold Gloves, appeared in 12 All-Star games and won the National League’s MVP award in 1995, when he hit .319 with 15 homers, 98 runs, 66 RBIs and 51 steals.
A decent portion of Larkin’s speech paid tribute to one of baseball’s most controversial figures — all-time hits leader Pete Rose. “I played with some monumental figures in the game of baseball and I want to acknowledge a few of those guys,” Larkin said.
The crowd started to cheer, apparently sensing what was coming next.
“You know it, Pete Rose,” Larkin said of his first big-league manager, much to the delight of the fans. “4,256 of them. That’s right, you know.”
Larkin then relayed the story of his first major-league game. He was called up to Triple-A Denver during the 1986 season. Flight delays because of weather led to Larkin arriving in the Reds’ clubhouse 11 minutes before a 7:35 p.m. game.
“Larkin, your first day in the big leagues and you’re already late,” Larkin recalled Rose saying to him. Rose then asked Larkin if he had any baseball equipment. “No, I have nothing,” he said.
So Larkin borrowed Rose’s bat and spikes for his first game. Larkin pinch-hit late in the game and scored a runner from third on a groundout to short.
After the game, Rose asked Larkin, “It feel good in your hand, that bat? Those shoes, they feel good on your feet?” Larkin affirmed before Rose said, “Good, give them back. Your stuff will be here tomorrow, give me my stuff back.”
Larkin said he never returned the bat or spikes Rose loaned him. “He talked to me about growing up in Cincinnati, he talked to me about the opportunity to represent the hometown team, the responsibilities of being a Red (and) how to conduct myself in a professional manner,” Larkin said of Rose, banned from baseball in 1989 for gambling while managing the Reds.
Davey Concepcion, who Larkin replaced at shortstop in Cincinnati, Tony Perez, Eric Davis, Buddy Bell and Dave Parker were among the teammates Larkin said had a profound impact on his career.
He shared a story about Bell, who asked Larkin to smell the grass before a game at Los Angeles. Larkin said he thought Bell was speaking figuratively, but after some time, Larkin said Bell wanted him literally to smell the grass. Larkin said he got down on all fours before Bell told Larkin to roll over.
“And I’m going, hold on a second, man,” Larkin said. “Something’s wrong with the picture right here. And as I turn over, I look up in the sky, high blue skies, a few clouds, I see the rim of Dodger Stadium and I just get almost in like a trance and he says to me, ‘Pretty big, isn’t it?’ And I go, ‘Yeah, it is. It’s enormous.’ I can see the rim of the stadium, the wavy canopy out in the outfield.
“And he says, ‘How big do you feel?’ And I said, ‘I feel like an ant. I feel so small.’ He says, ‘That’s right. That’s how small we all are relative to the grand scheme of baseball. Don’t ever lose that perspective.’ That was my introduction to baseball.”
When his career ended in 2004, Larkin had 2,340, 1,329 runs, 198 home runs, 960 RBIs and 379 stolen bases.
Along the way, Larkin helped the Reds to a World Series title in 1990, when Cincinnati swept the Oakland A’s.
“You know, every player wants to be successful, every player wants to win, every player wants to feel appreciated and looks for validation,” said Larkin, who delivered a portion of his speech in Spanish. “Well, my inclusion in the Hall of Fame is the ultimate validation and I want to thank you all for helping me along the way.”
Vicki Santo thanked the Golden Era Committee that voted her husband into the Hall about year after his death.
She expressed sorrow that Ron didn’t live to see his induction but quickly added: “This is not a sad day, not at all. This is a very happy day. It’s an incredible day for an incredible man, a man who lived an extraordinary life to its fullest.”
Ron Santo, 70 at the time of his death, packed 342 home runs and 1,331 RBIs into a 15-year career. Four times, he hit 30 home runs or more and drove in more than 100 in four seasons. Perhaps his best season came in 1969, when he homered 29 times and drove in a career-high 123 runs. The third baseman won five Gold Gloves and made nine All-Star game appearances.
But Vicki described a man who faced huge obstacles because of his diabetes.
“Looking back, he believed he was given the gift of talent as well as the challenge of diabetes so that through his hardship, he could shed light on a cause that he could help others through his story,” Vicki said. “And I think he would say that’s why he’s now been given the greatest honor any athlete could ever hope for from a sport, to be included among the greatest players who have ever set foot on earth.”
Referring to Ron as a guinea pig because science hadn’t advanced in the early-60s to treat his illness, Vicki said Santo tested his sugars during batting practice, his glucose levels by fielding grounders and the amount of insulin he needed by running bases. And that was before the game.
“But without the difficulties, what value would have been the gift?” she said. “What meaning would have been the journey? It never held him back, not before his career, not during and not after. Not even after double amputations (of his legs in 2001 and 2002), because Ron Santo believed it’s not what happens to you in life that people may judge but how you handle what happens to you in your life.”
The inductions of Larkin and Santo brought the number of Hall of Famers to 297, including 207 players. The 2013 Induction Ceremony will be held July 28. Among those on the ballot for the first time will be Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Mike Piazza, Craig Biggio and Curt Schilling.
BY ROB CENTORANI
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