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Gene Larkin Joins 'From Phenom To The Farm:' Episode 43

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“From Phenom to the Farm” releases new episodes every other Tuesday featuring players whose experiences vary across the professional baseball spectrum. Players will discuss their personal experiences going from high school graduation to the life of a professional baseball player.

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Gene Larkin’s heroics in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series might’ve lasted all of one pitch, but took years of preparation.

A 1984 All-American third baseman out of Columbia University, Larkin was a 20th-round selection that same year by the Twins. As a native New Yorker who grew up a Yankee fan and didn’t pay much attention to teams in the AL West (as the Twins were in that time), Larkin didn’t have much of an idea to the makeup of the team’s big league club, but just knew to advance he needed to hit.

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Hit he did, and Larkin steadily climbed through the minors, turning in solid performances at Class A Visalia and Double-A Orlando during his first two professional seasons. Following his performance in Orlando in which he was the Twins Minor League Player of the Year, Larkin received an invite to big league camp for spring 1987. The Twins had Larkin playing first base in the minors, but early on in big league camp he realized that first base might not be the spot that would give him the best opportunity to break into the show.

“Watched Kent Hrbek take a few rounds of BP, some groundballs at first base,” Larkin said. “I knew immediately I was not going to beat Kent Hrbek out as a player no matter how hard I worked—he was that good.”

With Hrbek entrenched at first base, Larkin broke camp with Triple-A Portland trying his hand at the outfield. In May of 1987, an injury led to Larkin making his big league debut, beginning a seven-year stint with the Twins.

He was right to assume that Hrbek wouldn’t be unseated, and during the 1987 Larkin saw the field mostly at DH, spelling Hrbek at first, and especially learning the art of pinch hitting.

“I’m a switch-hitter, so I know who’s in the bullpen for the opposition. I know what they’re going to do as far as what are their best pitches,” Larkin said. “As the game progresses, you kind of have an idea of who you might pinch hit for, based on who’s on the mound, who we’re facing.”

Buoyed by the 1-2 punch of Frank Viola and Bert Blyleven in the rotation plus the bats of Hrbek and Kirby Puckett, the 1987 Twins defeated the Cardinals in the World Series. For Larkin, who’d began the year in Portland and finished celebrating a title in the Metrodome, it was hard to imagine things somehow getting any better.

“Number one you get the big leagues, and then all of a sudden as a rookie you win the World Series, how do you top that as a professional player?” Larkin said.

Over the next few seasons, Larkin settled into a fairly regular big league role with the Twins, mainly serving as the team’s DH. After a 1990 season that saw the club finish last in the AL West, the Twins brought in some big offseason pieces—a new frontline starter in Jack Morris, and veteran DH Chili Davis, relegating Larkin back to a part-time role heading into 1991.

That 1991 season featured massive turnarounds for both the Twins and their eventual opponent in the 1991 World Series, the Braves—also a last place club the previous season. The teams traded blows in a nerve-wracking Series, with five of the seven games decided by one run.

Larkin spent the series in the same familiar role he’d spent the 1987 Series as, mainly watching from the bench, preparing for his number to be called as a pinch hitter. Following Puckett’s dramatic walk-off home run in Game 6, the Twins trotted out Morris to duel John Smoltz of Atlanta in what would go down as an all-time classic Game 7.

As the aces battled on the mound, alternating scoreless frames late into the game, Larkin began to walk through his pinch hitting routine, one that he’d put years of practice into. He stayed loose in the weight room throughout the game, and started running through scenarios.

“The eighth inning is when Jarvis Brown ran for Chili Davis,” Larkin said. “I didn’t believe if the lineup came around again to Jarvis’s position that he was going to hit (…) I thought that might be an opportunity for me or somebody to pinch hit for Jarvis, and that’s exactly what happened.”

In the bottom of the 10th, Dan Gladden led off the inning with a broken bat double, then advanced to third on a sacrifice bunt by Chuck Knoublach. Atlanta then intentionally walked Puckett, bringing to the plate Hrbek, with the spot in the order occupied by Jarvis Brown on deck.

“If I’m Atlanta, I do the same thing they do—I don’t want Kent Hrbek beating me, I want someone like Gene Larkin trying to beat me with the bases loaded and all the pressure on him,” Larkin said.

Atlanta chose to put Hrbek on, loading the bases, and Twins skipper Tom Kelly indeed called on Larkin to pinch-hit for Brown.  He strode to the plate to face Braves reliever Alejandro Pena, one good fly ball or well-placed grounder away from walking off the World Series.

“[Walking] from the on-deck circle to the batter’s box, I’m as nervous as a professional athlete could be,” said Larkin. “When I got in the box, for some reason, I felt a sense of calm.”

Pena gave Larkin a first-pitch fastball, and the professional pinch-hitter delivered a long single to left field, driving in Gladden to win the World Series.

On the latest episode of ‘From Phenom to the Farm,’ longtime big leaguer Gene Larkin joins to discuss playing in the Ivy League, Minor League lifestyle in the 1980’s, and World Series heroics.

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