Larkin's bat has produced a .300 average in five of the past six seasons; his glove turned gold in 1994. "I always wanted to win a Gold Glove while Ozzie Smith was still around," he says of the 40-year-old St. Louis Cardinal, who was cited as the National League's best-fielding shortstop from '80 through '92. The Wizard of Oz was Larkin's boyhood idol and remains his greatest influence. Larkin occasionally seeks Smith's counsel, follows his martial-arts regimen and even requested Oz's uniform number when he broke into the majors in '86. Alas, the Reds' number 1 had already been retired—in honor of the late manager Fred Hutchinson—so Larkin doubled the digit and took 11.
Larkin grew up in the Cincinnati suburbs, the third of five children. His father, Bob, is a chemist; his mother, Shirley, a community activist. (Coincidentally, Gant's father, George, is a chemical processor; his mother, Alice, a teacher at a school for the learning disabled.) On holidays Shirley would take her children to homes for the elderly and to shelters for the homeless. "I can't say I enjoyed it much at the time," Barry says, "but it was something that really stuck with me."
In 1992 he became a driving force behind the Caring Team of Athletes, which consists of one player from each major league team who, with every hit, raises money for needy children. "That makes batting slumps an enormous responsibility," he says. "If I'm not hitting, I think, Damn, I owe money to the program!"
Fortunately, Larkin's slumps tend to be as brief as was his stay in the minors. After the Reds selected him fourth overall in the 1985 amateur draft, Larkin burst through the bushes despite the prognostication of a Cincinnati executive who told Larkin he would never make it to the majors as a shortstop. "The guy said I didn't have the work ethic," says Larkin. "Or the hands. Or the ability. I knew it was a crock." As if to prove him wrong, Larkin was named the Triple A American Association's MVP in 1986 and was summoned to the majors late that season.
Arriving before his equipment did, Larkin had to outfit himself in other players' gear. As he crouched in the on-deck circle before his first big league at bat, wearing Dave Concepcion's shorts, a batboy handed him a note: "Look back, Honey. Your mom and dad are sitting with me in the owner's box—Marge Schott." Larkin turned, waved one of Eric Davis's batting gloves to his folks and strode to the plate in Pete Rose's spikes. He swung Buddy Bell's bat and drove in a run. "Wearing everyone else's stuff," he says, "made me feel like I was part of the team."
On road trips, Larkin, with rookie enthusiasm, lugged rightfielder Dave Parker's satchel. When Larkin got his first big league paycheck, Parker said, "Put it in my bag and feel how light it is." Then Parker put his own paycheck in the bag and yanked down Larkin's arm. "Kid," he advised, "keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth closed, and one day your bag will be this heavy."
Heavy for Larkin turned out to be a five-year, $25.6 million contract, which he signed in 1992. Still, he talks of getting his degree in economics from Michigan, where he was the Big Ten's first two-time MVP. Larkin is taking correspondence courses to make up the 12 hours he lacks. Between the end of the 1990 playoffs and the beginning of the World Series, Larkin had to read The Old Man and the Sea for a course requirement. "As I recall," Larkin says, "the old man tried to bring in a large fish—orca or something—to mount on his wall. He overcame that fish through a struggle. In baseball the struggle is to stay consistent over a period of years."
Which brings to mind Gant, who has consistently struggled over his 12-year pro career. After the Braves made him their fourth-round draft pick in 1983 and signed him out of high school in Victoria, Texas, he spent four seasons in the low minors before bouncing in and out of the majors with alarming frequency. He became the Braves' regular second baseman in '88, batting .259, belting 19 homers and committing a league-leading 26 errors at that position. The following year he turned up at third and on Nixon's enemies list.
That was Russ Nixon, the Atlanta manager at the time. Gant was benched after he was reported to be dancing in the team parking lot following a bad game. "I don't even dance!" Gant protests to this day. "Ask anybody: I'm no dancer." But a .172 average and 16 errors in 60 games was cause enough for the Braves to send Gant bugalooing down to Class A Sumter. Nixon wanted him to learn to play the outfield. "A lot of players buried in that situation would never make it back," says Knight. "But Ron would not stay buried."
Gant rose from the grave in 1990, hitting 32 homers and swiping 33 bases as Atlanta's leftfielder. The next year he had another 30-30 season and drove in 105 runs. His numbers plummeted in '92, and he sat out much of the World Series, with Deion Sanders taking his place. "Baseball is humbling, man," observes Larkin.