Larkin has impact on Zimmerman, Desmond
Hall of Famer taught Nationals' duo about life off the diamond
WASHINGTON -- Hall of Famer Barry Larkin never played for the Nationals, but his impact is still felt in the organization. Just ask third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and shortstop Ian Desmond.
From 2005-08, Larkin was the special assistant to then-general manager Jim Bowden. Larkin did more than just teach the game of baseball to Major and Minor League players in the organization. He taught them about life outside the game.
Larkin is modest when talking about his role with the Nats, stating that it was easy working with players such as Zimmerman and Desmond.
"They were such good people. They were cool, modest and humble," Larkin said via telephone. "My attempt was to help them become more knowledgeable and share with them some of the things [I did to prepare for the game]. They were good players before I started working with them. I didn't perform any miracles."
The first time Zimmerman met Larkin was in 2005. Zimmerman was playing for Double-A Harrisburg, and Larkin's job was to teach Zimmerman the fundamentals of playing shortstop. At the time, the team was thinking about benching Cristian Guzman, who was having his worst season of his career, and promoting Zimmerman to the big leagues during the final month of the season to have him become the everyday shortstop.
"They sent Barry down there," Zimmerman remembered. "I worked with Barry for a couple of days and, from there, we often kept in touch. Obviously, he taught me a lot about the game. But more importantly, he taught me other things around the game -- how to be a good person, how to respect the game, the other things that you usually wait until you are in the big leagues. But I was lucky enough to get it early from one of the nicest guys to learn that lesson from."
As a kid growing up in Sarasota, Fla., Desmond idolized Larkin, who spent 19 seasons playing shortstop for the Reds. Can you imagine how pleasantly surprised Desmond was when he had his boyhood hero teaching him the game of baseball?
What impressed Desmond the most was Larkin's work ethic. Larkin would spend hours with Desmond on his defense and hitting.
"It wasn't like a five-minute thing," Desmond said. "He really put his heart into it. He went the extra mile. That's what it takes to become a Hall of Famer. You have to be thorough and go the extra mile. He was just passionate about the game."
Desmond's biggest memory with Larkin occurred while Desmond was playing for Class A Savannah in 2005. Desmond and catcher Luke Montz were in the batting cage. Here comes Larkin, who stood in the middle of the cage without a net in front of him. Larkin was telling Desmond and Montz to concentrate on their hitting and avoid hitting him. Just hit the ball on the left or right side of Larkin.
"He said, 'I want you to swing as hard as you can and do not hit me,'" Desmond recalled. "He not only trusted us, but he was trusting what he was teaching us enough to put his body in front of the ball. We were taking full swings. ... That was the kind of conviction that he had for the young guys. He trusted us enough and he trusted what he was teaching us. There are not a lot of guys who put their bodies on the line. When he did that, I said, 'Man, that takes a lot of courage.'"
When Larkin first joined the Nationals, Bowden wanted him to be the everyday shortstop. But Larkin declined. The Nats ended up signing Guzman to a four-year, $16.8 million contract. Larkin's heart still belonged to the Reds and he felt he couldn't give the Nationals 100 percent as a player.
"My whole soul and core was being with the Cincinnati Reds," Larkin said. "An opportunity to play was great, but I wanted that opportunity to be in Cincinnati. ... I just didn't feel like I could commit 100 percent [to the Nationals]. I would have been unfair for me to take their money and go through the motions."
Bowden then thought Larkin would be a great teacher. Larkin gladly accepted the role as special assistant to the GM. Bowden remembered how much of a great motivational speaker Larkin was while visiting the Reds' Minor Leaguers in the early 1990s.
"Barry was one of the first people I brought over," Bowden said. "... Barry did such a great job with those kids in Cincinnati. When I became general manager of the Reds, I leaned on Barry my whole career. He was the only shortstop I ever had in Cincinnati. Barry's leadership abilities were like his playing. It was just Hall of Fame leadership. He really understood how to develop young kids."
Larkin played a role in developing Zimmerman and Desmond, who were more than happy when they learned that Larkin was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame last month.
"I'm very happy for him. Most importantly, it couldn't happen to a better, more humble guy who respected the game," Zimmerman said. "It's really what our sport is all about. Other than that, he really transformed the position of shortstop. He was the first 30-30 shortstop. He won Gold Gloves and Silver Sluggers. He was a great fielder that should have won more Gold Glove. ... You are looking at a guy who changed the way the game is played at his position."
Desmond sent Larkin a text message congratulating his mentor.
"I wrote, 'You are not only a great baseball player, you are a great role model. Nobody deserves it more than you.' That is 100 percent true," Desmond said. "I remember the first time I ever saw him in person, he just had that aura. He looked like a Hall of Famer, he carried himself like a Hall of Famer. He was a pro."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.