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Larkin learns about economic realities

Special to

July 19

Barry Larkin shouldn't be anywhere else, not in a Mets uniform, not in a Dodgers uniform. He has always been a Cincinnati Red and should continue to be one. But in these days when even the esteemed George Mitchell, Paul Volcker and George Will weigh in on the business of baseball, what's happening with Larkin symbolizes the pull between the perceived infinite market value for players and the finite revenues of the small- and medium-market franchises.

While the Yankees roll up a payroll of over $100 million and are trying to add to that by acquiring Rondell White, general manager Jim Bowden has traded Denny Neagle, is discussing Larkin with other teams and has let other teams know he will listen to offers on any Reds players other than Ken Griffey Jr., Pokey Reese and Danny Graves.

Barry Larkin
Barry Larkin has spent his entire 15 years in the majors with the Reds.

Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, the Pirates have said that they may trade Jason Kendall if they cannot sign him, and right now six years and $60 million for the All-Star catcher isn't getting it done. The Brewers know that Jeromy Burnitz now doesn't want to stay and sign a long-term contract, so they are talking about him with potential suitors like the Red Sox, Mariners and Mets. The Indians clearly are not going to sign Manny Ramirez at the end of the season, not if he's in the $18 million annual range.

So where are we talking? Kendall to L.A., Larkin to the Mets or Dodgers or Braves ... only clubs with payrolls of at least $70 million need to return calls. The majority of teams have to sit and watch and hope that the White Sox, Giants, Angels and/or A's roll on into October.

"What troubles me here is that I don't want to go," says Larkin. "But when I ask for what I'm told is a little less than my market value, all of a sudden I'm the bad guy. (Monday night) our club president (John Allen) flew into Detroit to tell me that either they would trade me or I'd become a free agent, because they're not going to sign me (at $9 million a year). They want to trade me because they'd rather get a couple of prospects than the two draft choices if I went on the market.

"And all of a sudden I'm supposed to be a bad clubhouse influence and stuff like that," says Larkin. "There's like this whispering campaign against me. I don't understand it. I don't think in 14 years I ever embarrassed the franchise."

This is, of course, a dangerous game for owner Carl Lindner, who does not seem to be interested in making money, but doesn't want to lose money, either. With Pokey Reese and Gookie Dawkins their double play combination of the future, the economics apparently dictate a deal. But if Larkin isn't discredited, one way or another, then the Reds lose a prodigal son. They also lose Griffey's best friend on the club. "What I don't understand is that I took less money in Cincinnati so they could keep Barry and make the club more respectable," says Junior. "I never wanted the team to be paying me so much that they couldn't go build a contender."

"Hey," says Larkin, "two years ago they were going to build around me and Bret Boone. That's the way it is."

The Yankees can sit there knowing they can afford to give Derek Jeter a quarter of Morgan-Stanley, after already making promised, de facto deals with Chuck Knoblauch and Roger Clemens. The Mets can try to acquire Larkin, then at the end of the season go after Alex Rodriguez. The Dodgers can pay as much or more to just Kevin Brown and Shawn Green as at least six teams do for their entire roster.

What happens, however, is that when a team like the Reds has such lofty expectations and those expectations go awry, fans sometimes connect the dots between the star player and the disappointment. It happened with the Cubs; for awhile, Sammy Sosa was the reason the Cubs haven't won since '08. With the Giants, Barry Bonds has sometimes been the focus. "You tell yourself, 'This isn't fair,' and sometimes you get pretty angry," says Bonds. "But it comes with the territory."

"I've always thought that losing has been blamed on me," says Griffey, who is struggling so much with expectations and reality that he seldom wears his cap backwards and runs around before games like a teenager. "As soon as they decided to get me out of there in Seattle, it was all my fault. They said they knew nothing about the death threats? (Team president) Chuck Armstrong is the one who told me. Now, the reason the Mariners are winning and the reason the Reds aren't winning is Ken Griffey."

No, Junior, the reason for A and for B is pitching. Period.

But this is the pressure on the star -- a pressure Bonds, Sosa, Larry Walker and some others have had thrust upon them. Mike Piazza endured it and moved on. No Yankee has it.

But the higher the dollar value, the higher the visibility, the greater the expectation. Monday night, one ESPN highlight featured every out made by Griffey, as if he accounted for all 27 outs.

Now Larkin may move on. Infinite values and finite revenues clash, and none of us who don't have access to each team's books -- along with a team of experts from Wharton and Harvard business schools -- know who is right, or if everybody's wrong.

What we also don't know is how many players can get $12 million to $20 million and not skew the system or make it so that only NBA-type celeb watchers can attend the games. Will Larkin get $9 million a year on the market? How about Kendall, who while a winner and the heart of a team, doesn't have big production numbers?

What we do know is that it all comes down to money, and money isn't making players like Larkin and Griffey tick. In fact, they both probably had a better time playing in the youth leagues of Cincinnati than they are right now as the game they love becomes a battlefield deep inside mercenary territory.

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Gammons: 2000 column archive

Gammons: News and notes

Hometown split: Reds place Larkin on trading block

 Reds chief operating officer John Allen talks about the Barry Larkin situation.
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