PDT Sports Editor
It’s rare for someone to be part of a Hall of Fame career from start to finish but come Sunday, longtime Cincinnati Reds scout Gene Bennett will be in Cooperstown, N.Y. for former Reds shortstop Barry Larkin’s induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
No. 11 retired in 2004 with a lifetime batting average of .295, 2,340 hits, 198 home runs, 379 stolen bases and 1,329 runs scored. He played the entirety of his professional career with the Reds after being pursued by the club since his senior year in high school in 1978.
More than 30 years ago Bennett, the Cincinnati superscout and Wheelersburg native, on a whim, caught his first glimpse of Larkin at a tournament in Ashland, Ky.
“My son lives in Ashland and I was at his house on the fourth of July and he told me there was a little tournament going on at Central Park,” Bennett said. “It was young guys, like 16-year-olds and younger. So we walked over there and as it happened, Larkin’s team was playing when we got there.
“Of course, I didn’t know who Larkin was at the time because he was only 14 or 15 years old. They hit a ball to his right at shortstop and he looked like Davey Concepcion. Later on he went down the left field line and caught another one,” Bennett said. “I told my son to go down to the scorekeeper and find out who that shortstop is. He came back and told me his name is Barry Larkin and he is going to be a freshman at Moeller High School next year. And I said boy that is a guy you want to remember, that guy.”
Bennett’s first impression was spot on. Larkin starred at Moeller as a two-sport athlete playing football along with baseball and when his senior season came to a close, Bennett was knocking at his door.
“His junior year I saw him a few more times again and then we took him in the second round when he was a senior. The way that came about was he signed to go to the University of Michigan also, but he wanted to play,” Bennett said. “After we drafted him we talked about it and he wanted to sign, but it was kind of a split thing. His family wanted him to go to college and Bo Schembechler wanted him to play football. I told him to be sure what he does is the thing he wants to do. There wouldn’t be any use to being a football player if you really want to take Concepcion’s place.”
Bennett gave Larkin a day to think things over and phoned him along with Michigan baseball coach Bud Middaugh. Larkin told Bennett the money was fair but his immediate future was in Ann Arbor with the Wolverines.
Larkin shunned his gridiron chances at Michigan and focused on baseball where he was a two-time All-American. In 1985, while Larkin was in his junior season at Michigan, Bennett and the Reds came calling again, this time selecting Larkin with the fourth pick in the first round of the baseball draft.
“When he was a junior he was eligible for the draft again and I saw him play again that year and he had turned into a real player, so we drafted him again,” Bennett said. “We made the deal with him before we drafted him. I was up there the morning of the draft and worked it out. After we drafted him and I went back to sign him Barry’s mom, Shirley, said, ‘Listen, we made a deal. We are honest people and we know what that deal is and that is what we are going to do.’ You can see where Barry gets all that from. His family, they are classy.
“We took him again and he signed and went right to Double-A and the next year he was up in the big leagues.”
From that point forward, Larkin assembled a Hall of Fame resume. He was a 12-time All-Star selection, three-time Gold Glove winner, a member of the 1990 World Series championship team, a nine-time Silver Slugger and the 1995 NL Most Valuable Player during his 19-year span with the Reds.
Come Sunday, Larkin will be enshrined with the greatest that have played the game. Bennett, just like he was in the beginning of Larkin’s journey, will be there.
“It’s good to have that happen because scouts scout forever and do not have guys go into the Hall of Fame,” Bennett said. “A lot of times scouts do not even have players that make it to the major leagues but I have just been lucky over my years to sign so many good players.”
Over Bennett’s career with the Reds, he signed the likes of Don Gullett, Chris Sabo, Paul O’Neill, Charlie Leibrandt and Jeff Russell. He ranked Barry as one of the greatest he ever signed.
“In all my years of scouting, you just don’t see high school players like Barry Larkin and Derek Jeter. Those two high school shortstops were probably the better shortstops that I ever saw,” Bennett said.
Outside of continuing the stability of the shortstop position that Concepcion had supplied for 15 seasons, Larkin’s character is what stood out to Bennett.
“In my 58 years with the Reds, I do not know of any player that has ever represented the Cincinnati Reds, on and off the field, better than Barry Larkin,” Bennett said. “In all the years he played you never saw anything negative about Barry Larkin. You never saw him get into any trouble or violate any rules and you never saw him make any bad statements about anybody.”
In Bennett’s time with the Reds, he has seen many promising players succeed, and many come and go.
“I always told players, there are three things you will learn from playing this game. If you are going to learn these things you will have a chance to play because you have talent or we wouldn’t be here to sign you,” Bennett said. “No. 1 is be on time. If the bus leaves at 1:05 p.m. you better be there or be left on the sidewalk. The next was play as hard as you can play and really want to play. And No. 3 was respect the game. And Larkin did everyone of those things. He was never late, played hard even when he was hurt and he respected the game.”
When Sunday arrives and it’s Larkin’s turn at the microphone, Bennett has no doubt he will represent the Reds and the game of baseball like he always has.
“Barry is a very intelligent guy,” Bennett said. “I think he will get up there and do a good job and hit on the people he needs to hit.”
The 2012 National Baseball Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony will be 1 p.m. Sunday on MLB Network.
Bob Strickley may be reached at 740-353-3101, ext. 203, or email@example.com.