HERNDON HOPES TO TURN THE PAGE ON HIS CAREER

LAKELAND, Fla. — If this were Rolling Stone magazine, the following might be titled “HERNDON — THE INTERVIEW!” Not that you’d likely find Larry Herndon in Rolling Stone’s colorful pages. He is not quite the earring and leopard-skin type.

Actually, if magazines were people you might find him in Gentlemen’s Quarterly. Maybe Family Weekly. Certainly not Commentary. Talking has never been Herndon’s favorite activity, at least with reporters. Setting up an interview with him is not merely like pulling teeth, it’s like waiting for them to grow in.

But to be honest, this never bothered me, for two reasons: 1) I figured maybe he just had nothing to say, and 2) as far as I know, he has never been rude about his silence. Ever. I think most reporters respect a guy’s quietness if he is consistent and honest about it. And Larry Herndon is both. He will shake your hand and exchange pleasantries from now until doomsday, or until you pull out the notepad, which is sometimes the same thing. Then he’ll say,
“I’d rather not,” and shy away.

Which is why I did a double take last week when I saw a TV crew doing a interview with none other than No. 31.

“What gives?” I asked him afterward. “Are you softening your stance?”

“Aw,” he said, laughing, “I . . . uh . . . naw . . . I’ll talk to people in the spring.”

“You will? An interview? Print media?”

“Uh . . . yeah . . . OK . . .

“Today?”

“Well. . . . ” Untrue story is put to rest It wasn’t that today. It was a few todays later. But we did sit down to talk. The only other time I had written about him was after his grand slam home run against Boston last year. In that column, I repeated an old story that two people that day swore to me was true and which in fact is not: how Herndon, after hitting the game-winning home run in Game 1 of the 1984 World Series, was so embarrassed by the mob of reporters around his locker, he snuck out through the trainer’s room in his uniform.

“That story,” Herndon said, shaking his head, his long, taut frame resting on a bench outside the clubhouse. “It’s just a total untruth. But it went all over the country.

“Vin Scully read it and said it on TV the next night. Even my mother called me up and asked why I left in my uniform. I said, ‘Mom, you know goodness well I wouldn’t do that.’ “

The truth was, he had his clothes brought to the trainer’s room, and he exited looking quite civilian. “Why didn’t you correct everyone the next day?” I asked. “Why didn’t you tell Vin Scully?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know Vin Scully.”

Larry Herndon, 33, is of the School of Quiet Expectations. Had “Tender Mercies” been about a ball player, he could have played the lead. “I would never spread a lie about someone,” he said. So he could never understand how that World Series story could have moved so freely. And he had no retort. Just keep quiet.

This, after all, is a guy who grew up smalltown, Mississippi, a place, ironically, called Sunflower. As a kid he idolized an older cousin named Bobby Bennett, who provided for Herndon the guidance and inspiration a father usually provides. Because Bennett was crazy about baseball, Herndon became crazy about it, too.

Did you know he was once a top-flight sprinter? Dave Collins recalled Herndon as “the fastest man I’d ever seen in the minors.” In 1974 Herndon stole 50 bases in one minor-league season.

And then his speed was carved away by a surgeon’s knife. “Two knee operations,” he said, “that was before the arthroscope. I got the scars.

“I remember running when I came back and saying to myself, well, things ain’t what they once were. I got to develop another part of my game.”

As Herndon talked, I had a picture of him running as a child, and in high school, winning 100-yard dashes, and then one day on a base path reaching for the speed and finding it gone. And not saying anything. It was a sad picture. In adversity, no excuses These days he faces another loss, at least a temporary one — that of people’s patience. Where, the fans want to know, are the numbers he showed in 1983? A .302 average, 20 home runs, 92 RBIs. He has not had a season like that since.

Sparky Anderson has stuck with him, although Herndon now only platoons in left field. The front office signed him as a free agent this year, but for much less than he had been making. In short, his professional graph has dipped. And Herndon, true to form, refuses to offer excuses. Or explanations.
“I hope to put it together this season,” he said.

There is more. Of course there is. Every player has his angers, his rationales, his finger-pointing. But every player has the right to keep that inside. “Ahhnn . . . ” Herndon began, then he stopped and looked away. For now, that’s where we were going to leave it.

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