As part of the launch event for Pepsi MAX's Field Of Dreams promotion, (details here) Tim and I were invited to interview Diamondbacks outfielder Justin Upton. In case you missed it, that interview can be found here, and it's definitely worth a read. However, although we were only promised time with Justin, we ended up unexpectedly spending a few hours with some other baseball legends as well, and will be posting a couple more transcripts in the weeks ahead. Former Cincinnati Reds shortstop and probable future Hall Of Famer Barry Larkin came in the room towards the end of the Upton interview, and chatted with us for about 20 minutes.
As before, we were joined by Roberto Payne of Bleacher Report.
Barry played shortstop for the Reds between 1986 and 2004, winning the World Series in 1990, the NL MVP award in 1995, 3 Gold Gloves, 9 Silver Sluggers, and appeared in the All Star Game 12 times. He is currently an analyst on ESPN's Baseball Tonight.
He spoke with us about, among other things, young talent, the NL West, pitching, the importance of coaching, and Kirk Gibson.
Click through the jump for a heaping helping of the old skool.
Barry Larkin sits down at the table with Justin Upton, Tim, Roberto and me.
Phil: Speak of the devil. We were actually just talking about you, because [Justin] came up a shortstop, so we were wondering if, uh...
::spills Pepsi Max all over self::
Tim: Yeah, you were one of the best.
P: I keep doing that. My cup's broken.
P: We were just asking who his legends were when he was young, watching baseball, and his role models.
Justin: You got these guys next?
Barry: For real. I'm here.
Bleacher-Report: You're relieved.
JU: I'm relieved!
P: Justin, thanks a lot for talking to us.
::Justin leaves the room as we turn our full attention to Barry::
BL (following our last question to Justin): Don't ask me about mascots.
T: We're not asking about mascots, don't worry.
BL: I've got my personal opinions.
T: So, just looking at another great shortstop in the league right now, Hanley Ramirez is struggling this year. Have you noticed anything that might be bugging him? Maybe, like, a minor injury? Or just, one of those years?
BL: You know, it's hard to be successful in this game, consistently. I think one of the things that I've noticed, not just with Hanley but with all the young players now is that they haven't had time, to go to the minor leagues and really, fail in the minor leagues in order to create their fundamental "base". You know, I see guys coming out and being rushed to the big leagues. Not to single out Hanley personally, but certainly, the organization is rushing guys to the big leagues and expecting them to be consistently good at the big league level. If you haven't failed, you don't have that basic, fundamental, sound, uh...
P: Sort of mental toughness?
BL: Yeah. Just to fall back on. You're gonna go through periods where you're gonna struggle consistently. You're gonna be GREAT, and then you're gonna fall off, and go, "What the Hell happened?" I think that's probably one of those situations where Hanley has had some success in the big leagues, but I think generally, [it's tough on] younger players in the big leagues now, simply because I think it's unfair for those guys to be expected to go out there and compete and be consistent against Roy Halladay. I'm sorry. If you see that guy, [and] you don't have a plan, and if you don't have a fallback plan, you're gonna get chewed up every single time.
::pounding table for emphasis::
BL: It's not just Doc Halladay. I mean, you've got guys that are throwing mid-high 90s, with 70 mile an hour offspeed breaking pitches. I think the difference in the game now, as opposed to when I was playing, was there were, maybe a couple guys here and there that threw mid-high 90s, but those guys didn't feature 70, 60 mile an hour offspeed breaking pitches. The guys that threw hard, they had hard breaking balls. Guys that throw hard now, they have soft breaking balls. That disparity between that high 90s and that 60s or 70s, that's where all the fundamentals come in, and I think some guys struggle because they don't have that fundamental base.
P: How do you think the shortstop position has changed in recent years?
BL: You know, I think you see more offensive-minded shortstops, but I've talked to major league managers around the league, and they say, "I want a guy that's gonna make routine play, routine play, routine play", so I think the premium always is on getting outs. The premium today is on pitching, it's on payroll, and it's on supporting that pitching payroll, so I think regardless of how good these guys are offensively, I think the premium always is on catching the ball, making the plays behind the pitcher. So I don't think that really has changed.
T: Have there been any surprise teams this year for you, that just kinda came outta nowhere?
BL: Well, Pittsburgh, I think, is the biggest surprise.
::general murmurs of agreement around the table::
BL: Pittsburgh has certainly had the talent, but they always traded it away.
BL: But they now have the leadership to get it done, and I think Clint Hurdle has done a fabulous job in getting these guys to the point where they believe they should win. I think they've paid a lot of attention to detail, and I think those fundamentals are really good. I think the same with Cleveland, I think Manny Acta's done a nice job, and they're playing well and won a lot of games early in the season. A squeeze here, getting a runner over, getting a runner in. They have some pitchers that are out there pitching to contact, they're catching the ball, and Asdrubal Cabrera's been ridiculous as of late. Um, Arizona. ::gesturing to us:: Arizona's a surprise. No one really expected them to do the things they're doing. A new manager in Kirk Gibson. In Spring Training, they talked about how Kirk Gibson took the time and said, "Listen. This is how we're gonna play the game." Not only has he talked about it, but we've seen clips of him going out there and showing guys how to run to first base and faceplanting behind the bag.
P: Stumbling, falling over, yeah.
BL: I tell ya, that can NOT be overstated how HE ::motioning as if to imply he's referring to the now-departed Upton:: reacts to his manager, going out there and doing that, making a fool of himself, then getting up and dusting himself off and saying, "You know what? But this is how we've got to play." You know, that's instant respect. "I mean, I can't go out there and compete at THAT level, but..." the intensity, and the consistency is what Kirk Gibson is about. It's what he WAS about as a player, and, although I haven't been in that clubhouse, I'm assuming that's what he is about as a manager. You can see the guys responding there. Matt Williams, I think there's something to be said about guys that played and played it the right way, being around these guys, around Justin, around Stephen Drew, Miguel Montero, and some of the players. It's about Eric Young, Matt Williams, and Kirk Gibson setting the example. I think that is so important. Take Nolan Ryan. When Nolan Ryan went down to Texas, you know what happened? The pitching got better. Ya know why?
T: Turn around.
BL: Exactly. I think it's so important for the game, and so important now that teams that are successful have people that have played the game of baseball. You know, we've talked a lot about these stats and the sabermetrics and all that kinda stuff. That's certainly part of it. But you put a player in a room with two guys. You've got Kirk Gibson, who has all the experience in the world, and the respect, and another manager who just can recite the stats and say, "Now this is how we need to do it." I think you're starting to see that with teams that are successful. The Texas Rangers, obviously you guys here in Phoenix, I think THAT'S the trend that needs to happen in baseball. The problem is getting guys to come back ::laughing:: and put on a uniform and, ya know, put in that time. And I have a lot of respect for him for doing that, as well.
P: You mentioned Clint Hurdle, Manny Acta, Kirk Gibson, Matt Williams. In your experience, how much influence does the manager have in the game on the field?
BL: Well, the X's and the O's of the game really dictate what happens. Certainly, the manager's gonna make a move here more, in the National League than in the American League, as far as putting guys in the position to be successful. I think the most important thing is knowing your own personnel. I think that's the most important thing as far as a manager's concerned. And then, if you know your personnel, you know what type of situations they probably will be a little more successful in. I think communication is important. I think consistency is really important from a manager's position, but it's really knowing your personnel and having the respect of the personnel. I think that, when guys see a player that has done it, a person who was consistent, and a person that communicates, then they can identify with that player and with that manager. All those guys that I have mentioned are those type of people. I haven't heard anything to the contrary that Kirk Gibson is consistent and a communicator. As a player, he was a guy that you feared, because of his intensity. I don't know if Justin Upton knows what he was like as a player. I don't know if the young guys coming up, Gerardo Parra, those guys know what he was like, but, if you ask around the league, "Hey. Tell me about Kirk Gibson." Imma tell you what. I was a shortstop, and when that son of a bitch was playing, and he was OLD at that time, but he was one guy that -- Ozzie Smith told me, "If he is on first base, bro, make sure you get outta the way, cuz that sonna bitch gonna try and KILL you." Ya know?
T: Take you out.
BL: Exactly. But that's what you have now, that's the example that you have, and it runs downhill. So, I think it's important to put those types of people in positions in the game.
T: I was at a Steve Stone talk a couple weeks ago, and he made the exact same point, that putting people that have experience in the game of baseball, not necessarily the theoretical side, but -- experts like you were an expert in baseball, and Kirk Gibson's an expert in baseball, because you've lived it, and you've worked it, and that seems to be an element that sometimes can be missing.
BL: Absolutely. It's not about what I say, it's about what I do. I keep going back to the clip that I saw when Kirk was running and he faceplanted, but I think that's so important. I work with kids, and I'll say something to a kid like, "Listen. You know the fundamentally correct way to catch a ground ball is, you draw an imaginary line down the middle of your body and you catch the ball on the glove side of that imaginary line." And guys go, "Huh?? Example? What does that mean?"
::here Barry gets up from the table and starts to demonstrate while standing up::
How many times have I seen a guy that's gonna throw the ball to first base catch the ball over here, well, you know what that tells me? As an instructor, it tells me that you didn't move your feet to get yourself in position. Number one, first thing that happens is, if I don't catch that ball on the glove side of that imaginary line, and that ball takes a bad hop, look what happens to my elbow? My elbow gets in a situation right here where I can't move. I can't move! So, you know what I do? I move my feet to get into position to catch the ball. It's THAT much of a difference, but it's HUGE.
::Barry's eyes grow as wide as saucers in emphasis::
P: So really showing, rather than telling?
BL: Exactly! So I say, "Catch the ball on the glove side of that imaginary line." "Ok, coach! I got it!" Stop my feet, catch the ball. No, don't stop your feet, get around the ball, catch the ball, boom! Now you're in position to throw the ball to first base. THAT'S how you do it. That's how you do it consistently. That's how you avoid saying "Do this, that, and the other thing." But me telling you that, and me showing you that,
P: Very different things.
BL: Two different things. Most guys are visual. If you can see it, then you can go, "Ok". Some of my best hitting instructors were guys that told me what TO do. Some of my worst? Some great names I won't mention...
...some guys that would say stuff like, "Is it broke? You're not using it." What the-- what the -- WHAT does that MEAN? What does that mean, ya know? Tell me what TO do. You're not using your hand, you're not using your bottom hand, you're not this, you're not that. Okay. Alright. How about telling me what TO do? Some of the greatest hitting instructors that I had weren't the biggest names., Let's take Ray Knight. Great. Absolutely perfect. Ray Knight would tell me, "You're hitting well, so we're gonna take video of you right now, and we're gonna go work in a cage." And then later, I'm struggling, I'm in the middle of a six game hitless streak, slump, oh-fer-whatever, just terrible at-bats and all. "Ray, can we go to the cage and work?" "Nope, let's sit down and watch this film right here, because when you were hitting well, this is what you WERE doing. If we go out to the cages, you're just gonna continue the crap that you're doing right now. Ya know?" So I'm like, "...really?" He's like, "Yeah". And, okay. So now I'm looking at it, oh yeah. That's what I'm NOT doing, that's what I'm not doing. I'm not going out there and reinforcing the bad habits that I'm doing right now. I'm simply looking at and trying to remember dry swinging and saying, "This is what I was doing when I was doing well." Now, all of a sudden, I'm out of it quicker than going out there and just wearing myself out."
P: Doing the same thing?
BL: So, I think all of those things are related, and that's why it's important to have guys that had success, or some experience in the game back in the game, because the same things I'm telling you guys are the same things I assume Kirk Gibson is telling HIS players, and some of the reasons why I think they're doing better than they've done.
::now, much to our surprise, Barry turns the tables on us and makes it into more of a round table::
So, is Arizona gonna win? My turn to ask.
T: Yeah, uh...
P: Win what?
T: The division?
P: I don't think so. I think the Giants are gonna trade for a bat, and I think that they're gonna walk away.
T: The one advantage Arizona DOES have is their schedule in the second half, is a little bit easier.
BL: Dodgers and Padres are down this year, though.
B-R: Dodgers, especially.
P: Yeah, they were fighting to get out of the cellar a few days ago.
T: I think they can make a run, but they're probably one or two pieces away.
P: We came into the season expecting next year to be the year, and anything that happens this year is just gravy.
B-R: Yeah, I didn't expect ANYTHING this year.
T: This is pretty good gravy.
P: This has been fun, but we're still trying to not be disappointed if we DON'T win the division.
T: How many pieces away do YOU think they are? Do you think they're gonna be able to be in it right to the end?
BL: Ya know, I look at San Francisco. We've been to San Francisco, like, three times. Everytime, they win a 4-2 ballgame. 2-1 ballgame. 1-0 ballgame. But the point is, they've got pitching.
T: Top to bottom.
BL: And in the bullpen.
T: It doesn't matter WHO they're gonna bring out. They're gonna be good.
BL: It really doesn't. They are just so stacked all throughout that, the 'pen and the starting rotation, it's like, wow, they've got Ryan Vogelsong, and it's like --
P: He just came outta nowhere.
BL: Where was he from?
T: He was playing in Japan, what... two years ago?
BL: I believe it's when you go to a team that has really good whatever it is, that you're gonna be really good. Look at Philadelphia. Certainly, the Phillies have got that starting rotation, you expect them to be good. You wanna go out there and throw a shutout? Ya know what? It's my turn. I'm not gonna let the team down. Joe Blanton at the beginning of the year, I was saying, I expect HIM to have a big year. EVERYBODY expects Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt, ya know, everybody expects THEM to do well. But watch him, because he's the one guy no one's talking about, and he's gonna be the guy that everyone's, like, okay, hopefully we get him. And he's looking at it. I saw in an interview, they were referring to the "core four", or whatever they were calling them, the "big four", or whatever, and Blanton was sitting right there! And they were talking about the "core four", and he was sitting right there! I was like, you talk about motivation? Watch out for this guy. But I think that's the same situation with San Francisco, because you've got Tim Lincecum, and you've got Matt Cain, and it's like,
T: Bumgarner's been good, even if he hasn't gotten the wins.
BL: Yeah. No run support. But you've got these two guys, and you're like, "I'm not gonna drop the ball."
B-R: You don't wanna let 'em down.
BL: That's right.
P: And Sanchez, when Sanchez isn't walking people, he's --
B-R: He's on.
P: He's just as good.
BL: He's unbelievable. Unbelievable. So I think it's all about pitching. I think it's pitching, pitching, pitching, I think if you can get pitching, then you're gonna have a chance to win. You guys have been good, too. JJ Putz has been really good at the end of the game. Hernandez?
::here, Barry looks unsure::
T: Yeah, David Hernandez.
BL: Hernandez, yeah. He's been really good as well, but I just think San Francisco's so stacked with good pitching. What kinda lead? How many games?
T: They have 3. But it's a long season.
BL: Ya know, I also just wonder how long Lincecum's gonna be able to continue doing this.
P: You think his arm's gonna break down?
B-R: His form --
P: It is a weird delivery.
BL: It IS weird, man. ::shaking his head::
T: He's got some surgery in his future.
B-R: Yeah, definitely.
P: Seems like every year, he has a rough stretch, and people are like, "It's finally gonna happen."
BL: We had a guy named Scott Williamson. He wasn't really a Lincecum type, but, I mean, high-to-mid 90s, with a split out of this world. His mechanics were a little off, and, people kept saying, "This guy's gonna fall off. He's gonna fall off. He's gonna break down." Then, eventually? ::snaps fingers::
P: It happened?
BL: Just one day. Boom! It was over. I dunno if that's Lincecum, but...
At this point, the Pepsi MAX folks return to take Barry Larkin to another part of the event. We shake his hand, thank him profusely for talking with us, and move on to another Hall Of Famer...
Thanks a lot to Barry for doing this with us and to Pepsi MAX for arranging it. Stay tuned for more All-Star Interviews.