Larkin learns Front Office 101
by Alan Schwarz
Most people think it's the Expos who relocated to Washington this year. But in some ways it was the Reds: from general manager Jim Bowden to his handpicked assistants, Barry Larkin, Jose Rijo and Bob Boone, the Nationals have become Reds reincarnate.
The most intriguing face belongs to Larkin, who throughout his Hall of Fame caliber career was considered one of the brightest players in baseball and a strong GM prospect. But after less than one year inside the front office, exposed to the schedule and other demands of running a major league organization, is Larkin having second thoughts? I sat down with Bowden and Larkin to discuss the transition to a star's new baseball life.
ALAN SCHWARZ: Jim, what have you wanted Barry to learn this year?
JIM BOWDEN: The first thing is recognize that there is a transition between playing and going into the front office. We have a very unique case here. We're talking about a player that was a 2004 all-star and the following year he is the special assistant to the general manager.
Barry is very talented in many areas--whether he wants to manage in the big leagues, whether he wants to coach, whether he wants to be a scouting director, whether he wants to be a general manager, Barry has the judgment, the evaluation, the business background to do any of them. He understands hitting as good as anyone I've ever been around. He can identify it whether it be from a scouting perspective or a hitting-coach perspective. He has a real good sense of who can play and who can't play.
AS: Barry, some star players retire with a heightened belief they can become GM's immediately--Mike Schmidt comes to mind. What do you need to learn moving forward for you to move up in the baseball hierarchy?
BARRY LARKIN: I don't know if I want to move up in the baseball hierarchy--which is actually why I took this position, to be exposed to the things that Jim has to do and some of the duties of the general manager. To see what happens on the other side of the fence. I certainly didn't think at the end of my playing days that I would have been capable of being able to perform the duties of the general manager.
AS: It sounds to me you've been a little spooked by the waiver rules.
BL: Actually I haven't seen them.
BL: Jim is really walking me through this very gingerly--the one thing that he said to me when I first accepted this job was, "I don't want to put everything on you right away. I want this to be a pleasant experience for you." So he's been very slow in exposing me to some of the more intricate and confusing things that I might face somewhere down the line.
AS: That's interesting, Jim--when Sandy Alderson brought in Billy Beane, his strategy was to make Billy do everything, learn everything at once, sort of sink or swim. Seems you're taking a different path.
JB: I wanted to make sure that when this year is over he would have the opportunity to be involved in a lot of different facets--not overwhelm him so when the year is over he's like, "Well, I don't want to do that! Are you kidding me?" When the year is over he's going to look and go, "You know, I kind of like it, next year I am ready to take a little bit more of a bite."
AS: How does Jose Rijo fit in?
BOWDEN: Jose's been able to help not only our big league pitching staff and with trades and pitchers in the draft, but he's from the Dominican Republic where he has a complex. We've taken a situation where we had one team in a bad area in the Dominican Republic, basically the ghetto, and we now have two teams at Jose's complex. We're able to sign more players in Latin America than we ever have before. The last three years, they spent very close to zero dollars. So we've been very aggressive in improving our situation in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela and Mexico and all the other countries.
AS: That's very surprising, given that Omar Minaya was in charge from 2002-04, and has such zeal for Latin America.
JB: Well, I think we all have budget restrictions. When I came in here, they allowed me to reallocate some dollars so we would have more of an influence there. I think us moving to Washington, they allowed us a little more flexibility.
AS: Now that you're not playing, Barry, how do you look at players differently?
LARKIN: Whenever we have a staff meeting, the one thing that I hear is, "You are such a player."
AS: I'm not sure that's a compliment.
BL: (Laughs.) I think it is. I think it's a perspective that they appreciate, a guy who was just in the clubhouse just last year. Especially in the situation here, the coaching staff is so far removed from playing the game of baseball that you sometimes forget how it actually feels to be a player. And I think they rely on me to give them a realistic feel of how the players would react to a certain situation.
JB: One of the hardest things that teams do in this game is evaluate hitters. I think scouts in general have a problem. I grew up with the Cincinnati and Pittsburgh organizations which were basically run-and-throw organizations, and when I got to Cincinnati I basically said, "Look, run-and-throw doesn't work because if you don't hit you don't play in the big leagues." That's where (Adam) Dunn and (Austin) Kearns and Wily Mo Pena and Sean Casey and Felipe Lopez, they all came out of that--hitting and fielding are more important than running and throwing. Barry's understanding of hitting is beyond what scouts have been scouting for 35 years can understand.
AS: Barry, you might have been baseball's most well-rounded infielder for much of the 1990s--stealing and hitting and fielding and patience, the whole package. Does that versatility help you as a scout?
LARKIN: It does. Whenever I'm watching somebody, I do compare what they do to how my approach was to the game. The more rounded a player that I am, the more that I have to draw from.
AS: How close did you come to putting on the uniform again this summer?
BL: I was actually working out in Orlando and working out pretty good. I was ready to play. (But) my family is something that is very important to me, and I just could not make the commitment to being away from home for the last two months of the season. As far as physically, I was absolutely ready to play.
AS: Jim, when did you realize that Barry was a front office/GM prospect?
JB: When I met him (in the late 1980s). When you run across special people in your life, you just know. Whether it be presence, intelligence, soul, character, integrity, work ethic, understanding, getting along with people, team building, good judgment, good sense, you know who they are. The first time I met Billy Beane I knew what he was going to be. The first time I met John Schuerholz I knew what he was.
AS: Barry, in 10 years, what position in baseball do you want to have?
BL: I honestly cannot answer that question. I assume that in 10 years my kids will be out of college and doing their own thing. I'd like to be exposed to everything on this side of the fence and make an assessment after I am exposed to all the things to see what I want to do.
AS: Gut feeling--front office or on-field?
BL: On the field.
AS: Is there anything about this year's experience that makes you feel that way?
BL: Yeah--Jim Bowden gets to the ballpark at 8:30 in the morning and leaves at midnight. How about that?
You can reach Alan Schwarz by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.