State of the Hogs: Larry Shank
It was early in the college baseball season after Arkansas had taken two of three games from then No.-1 ranked Vanderbilt at Baum Stadium. After the final game, Tim Corbin, the visiting coach, took special care to pay tribute to what he called a fine Arkansas team.
It was a weekend when Arkansas fans packed Baum in record numbers. Around 30,000 were in the newly expanded facility and the place was rocking as Jess Todd came on in relief to beat the Commodores both Friday and Sunday.
Corbin praised Todd and several other Razorbacks who played supporting roles in the big weekend. He paid respect to Dave Van Horn, the UA skipper, and his assistants. Then, he pointed from one end of Baum to the other end and then to the press box for the interview's clinching statement.
"This was a great setting for a great college baseball series," Corbin said. "What you have here is special. You've got it all. It's a wonderful atmosphere. I've been coming here for several years and it's always been good. You've got great fans and the guy up there is just wonderful. He is as good as there is anywhere. He's an important part of what happens here. He helps make it.
"You could build a park just like this and then you'd still be missing something. You'd need that guy."
Corbin didn't even know Larry Shank's name. But he knew the Arkansas public address announcer as the best in college baseball. Corbin is as good a baseball man as there is and was head coach of Team USA last summer. You figure he's been to a few parks.
I just nodded in agreement. Corbin wasn't saying anything I didn't know, just adding more confirmation from a notable unbiased source.
I ached for Larry Shank's family as they buried a great man this week. Shank had battled cancer for a couple of years and most thought he was past the tough stages until just a couple of weeks ago. And, then, he was gone in just a matter of days. I write this carefully because I know how it hurts when someone who only knew your father through his work say they are really going to miss him. They are going to miss being entertained. You have just lost your best friend, the patriarch of your family. They can't fathom what you feel and the hurt in your heart.
Still, I'm going to say it. Arkansas baseball fans are going to miss Larry Shank the same way they miss Bud Campbell, Orville Henry and Paul Eells. Shank was to Arkansas baseball what Campbell and Eells were to Arkansas football with their play-by-play and Henry was with his columns.
I wasn't close to Larry. I didn't know him much better than the 30,000 who were at Baum for the Vandy series. But I did have several conversations with him that I will always treasure. He had a way of connecting in just a few seconds and making you comfortable.
Larry often stopped into the press box to tell writers when he enjoyed their work. He read every page of the sports section and he knew what you penned even if it was not on Razorback baseball. I received a few of those nice mentions in the press box hallway. When a real pro said he liked something you did, it means something and I have to admit that Larry made me blush more than once.
It was two years ago when I first learned of Larry's cancer. I thought we had the kind of relationship that he might allow me to write about his battle. I knew that most of the hardcore baseball fans already knew of it.
Out of respect, I decided that I would not ask him personally because if he really didn't want to discuss it there might be a problem in turning me down face to face. So I asked a close mutual friend to take the interview request to Larry.
I expected to hear back through the friend, either way. I was surprised when almost immediately Larry sought me out in the press box and asked to see me in the back hallway.
"I'm going to have to think about this," he said. "And, I'm going to have to ask my private nurse — my wife."
The next day, there was Larry again asking to see me in the hallway.
"I'm going to say no," he said. "I just don't think I'm strong enough to handle going through all the details about something like this."
I understood, but I dropped my eyes to cover my disappointment. Larry reached out and put his hand on my shoulder to get my attention.
"Listen, it isn't you," he said. "Actually, it is you. I know how you'd write it. I know you would pour yourself into it. It was going to be emotional. That's the reason I'm not going to do it. It's too tough to talk about all I've been thinking and have gone through. Take it as a compliment. You take care of your friends and I respect that and consider you to be one of mine.
"I'm battling for my life. I know that. I'm doing well, but the treatments are so tough. They've taken a lot out of me. Maybe when I get a little stronger we can do it. Right now I'm not strong enough physically or emotionally to do it."
That was at the end of the ‘06 season. We visited again about it early this season and we both agreed it might be a good story down the road if things kept going good.
"I know you still want to do it, don't you?" Larry said. "But to be honest, I'd rather read about guys like Dave Jorn and the players. Write about them. They deserve it more than me. I'd think if I read something about me then everyone could have read about a player instead."
Those that really knew Larry Shank know that's totally Larry Shank. He'd go out there on that balcony and conduct the crowd with that baby bat in the seventh inning, but it was never about him.
It was about doing the best for Razorback baseball. It was about bringing excitement to Baum Stadium.
Larry Shank always made me feel good about being a fan. He made me feel good about singing even if I couldn't sing. He made me want to sing along when he did the national anthem on Sunday afternoons in his splendid red blazer. Like everything else he did, his version was simple and perfect.
It was the kind of rendition that made baseball men like Tim Corbin notice. And, it made them ache for a Larry Shank of their own. They will never find him. No one will ever be as good as Larry Shank.
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