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 really the earring and leopard-skin type. Actually, if magazines were people you might find Larry Herndon in Gentlemen’s Quarterly. Maybe Family Weekly. Certainly not Commentary. For talking has never been his favorite activity, at least not with reporters. Setting up a Herndon interview is not like pulling teeth. It’s more like waiting for them to grow in.

But 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 quiet 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 here doing an interview with none other than the left fielder who wears No. 31.

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

“Aw,” he laughed, “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 for this column. And I learned something.

The only other time I had written about Herndon was following his grand slam

last August against Boston. Even then, he seemed uncomfortable talking about his heroics. In that column, I repeated an old story which two people that day swore to me was true and which in fact is not. Perhaps you’ve heard it: 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 sneaked out through the trainer’s room in his uniform.

“That story,” Herndon said Monday, 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, where he changed and exited looking quite civilian. “Why didn’t you correct everyone the next day?” I asked. “Why didn’t you tell Vin Scully?”

“I don’t know Vin Scully,” he said.

So the story is still told in press boxes. Larry Herndon only shrugs. He is

33, a graduate of the School of Quiet Expectations. Had “Tender Mercies” been about a ball player, he could have played the lead. “I guess I am a guy who gives you an even break,” he said, when I asked how he would describe himself. “I give what I want to receive. I don’t ask anything for free.”

A lot of people can say that. When Larry Herndon says it, I believe it. He has had to take a pay cut to sign with the Tigers this year as a free agent. He refused to gripe about it. “Let’s just go on,” he said. “The next day is today.” Surgeon’s knife took his speed

Perhaps because of that attitude, Herndon is respected and often admired by his teammates. Quiet is an admired trait on the Tigers and this is a guy who learned quiet early in a small town, named, ironically, Sunflower, Miss. As a kid, Herndon idolized an older cousin named Bobby Bennett, who provided the guidance and inspiration a father usually provides. “I guess I admired his strength,” Herndon said. “He did what had to be done.” And because Bennett was crazy about baseball, Herndon became crazy about it, too.

Did you know he was once a topflight sprinter? You might guess that by the posture, the long, firm hamstrings. He still holds a high school record in Tennessee, and former Tiger Dave Collins recalls him as “the fastest player 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 he talked, I had a picture of him running crazily as a child, and in high school, winning those 100-yard dashes, and then one day after his surgery, taking off from first base and reaching for the speed and finding it gone. And not saying anything. “Wasn’t nothing I could do about it,” he said, but it was a sad picture anyhow.

These days, Herndon 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 he now only platoons Herndon in left field. With the salary cut and the increased criticism, his professional graph has dipped. And yet Herndon, true to form, refuses to offer excuses. Or explanations. “I hope to put it together this season,” he said.
“Let’s leave it at that.”

There is more. Of course there is. Every player has his angers, his rationales, his finger-pointing. The move from everyday player to role player could not have sat well with him. But every athlete has the right to keep those feelings inside.

“Ahh . . . ” Herndon began, then he stopped and looked away. For now, that’s where we were going to leave it.

We talked a bit more, little things mostly, and although his foot was tapping — as it was throughout the interview — he was otherwise relaxed. Not Rolling Stone relaxed, maybe. But relaxed.

“I never really stopped talking with the press, you know,” he said. “I don’t think I ever said, ‘Guys, I’m not talking, I’m a non-talker here.’ I don’t like those things where they (the media) go back to the mayor of your old hometown, but you know, this stuff . . .

“It’s OK?”

“Yeah, it’s OK.”

“So why didn’t you ever tell me before?” I asked, laughing, but I didn’t expect much more than a shrug, and that is what I got.

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