Walk into the Players Only baseball training facility in Eden Prairie on any given day and you might hear -- above the sound of balls cracking off metal bats -- the unmistakable New York accent of Twins legend Gene Larkin.
Twenty years after the defining moment of his baseball career -- a bases-loaded single over a drawn-in outfield to win Game 7 of the 1991 World Series -- Larkin stays connected to the game by teaching it to kids with their own baseball dreams. It's remarkable to watch someone who was once at the pinnacle of the game now working over and over with kids on the same fundamental challenges when it comes to hitting a ball. As boys continue to make the same mistakes -- holding the bat in the wrong position, not spinning off their back feet -- Larkin patiently steps in, offers straight-forward instruction in his booming voice and steps back.
Crack. .... "Good" .... Crack! .... "Goooooood" .... CRACK!.... "Perfect!"
"Listen, as in anything, if you're passionate about it, you like what you do, it really doesn't have a negative impact," Larkin said of the repetition. "You try to keep it fresh, try to do different things. And you're seeing different kids every year."
While Larkin said there's nothing wrong with taking the sport seriously and training seriously, he keeps an eye out for kids who seem to be treating baseball more like work or who receive a lot of pressure from parents. A key to Larkin's success -- including four years at Columbia University where he broke 13 of 16 hitting records his senior year and earned a degree in economics -- was family and friends telling him around age 12 or 13 to lighten up about baseball.
"I put too much pressure on myself as a young kid," he said. "When I see someone like that, I really try to pull him aside and give him a few minutes of my time to give him my vantage point about what I see is going on -- whether it's pressure at home that they're receiving or pressure that they're putting upon themselves."
Larkin joined Tom Nevers in operating Players Only three years ago, and works with other ex-Twins on a winter baseball training camp for kids. (It's his self-described B career. He also works in asset and wealth management for New Era Financial Group.) While some kids know of his famous hit -- and bring him baseballs and cards to sign -- they don't ask him about it much.
"I think they know because mom and dad told them I used to play," he said. "Even the older kids were young when I played. I don't really build that up. I don't think that's necessary unless there's a situation or a story that I can relate to a kid that would help him. I usually do that when they're really struggling and they're down, because I can speak firsthand about what it was like to go through major slumps."
My 10-year-old son has heard the Larkin 1991 story a few zillion times. During Game 7, I was almost as close as a fan could be to Dan Gladden, the runner on third base who scored off Larkin's hit. I was one of the Sims Security ushers wearing those gaudy red blazers and black clip-on ties. (Want proof? Find the guy below in red.)
The passage of 20 years is apparent to Larkin, 48, who will be an empty-nester soon with his son preparing to attend Wagner College in New York and play baseball there. Larkin doesn't play baseball much any more -- other than in a Twins' fantasy camp -- but sees himself staying involved in youth coaching. The repetition is offset by the fun of watching young players improve.
"With baseball, it's the same drills you repeat over and over and over again, but the pace and the intensity changes depending upon the ability of the kid you are working with," Larkin said. "So you kind of dictate what you're going to do based on the kids and their abilities and their passion for the game."