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02/21/05 8:00 AM ET

Herndon kept focus on field

Former Giants outfielder to return to game as coach

There has always been a quietness and sensitivity about Larry Herndon, a black athlete never conflicted about who or what he was and a man who nurtured a deep love of family, friends and baseball.

Even in the hyper world of the Major Leagues, where egocentrics ballyhoo their exploits and crave attention, the former Giants player didn't care about ballying or hooing -- only about the game, only about striving to be better.

And should there be strife -- racial or otherwise -- Herndon refused to spark a debate or get agitated, preferring to be above it all, comfortable in his own skin and forever aware of his sporting heritage, the brothers who eased his path.

A tall, fluid player, Herndon was a Giant from 1976 to 1981, twice hitting .288, thrice logging double-figure stolen bases, then becoming a star in Detroit where he helped guide the Tigers to the 1984 World Series title. He retired after the 1988 season.

Herndon batted .274 in a 14-year career with 107 homers, and caught the final out in the World Series against the San Diego Padres.

black history month 2005

This day was especially good. His daughter, Mayia, 25 -- who has spent her life in a wheelchair following a birth defect -- had just graduated from Thomas Cooley Law School in Michigan, and the Herndon clan was there to celebrate.

"I'm very proud of her," said Herndon. "It's a big, BIG day."

He is also happy that his other three grown children are doing well -- the youngest being Larry Jr., a student at Southwest Tennessee; Latasha, in retail in Memphis; and Kamelah, a teacher.

"I'm a lucky man -- I also have four grandbabies and I've been married to Faye for 27 years," Herndon says. "I had great sisters and brothers and was raised by my grandmother, Estella. You know how grandmas are. She taught me how to live the right way and the golden rule."

His career followed a similar path. Herndon was a professional's professional, studious on the outside but fierce during games, running hard and fast, always finding ways to help his teams win.

He won the respect of the Tigers and served as a Detroit coach from 1992 until retiring in 1998, when he opted for more leisurely work as owner of a coin-operated laundry.

Until recently, that is. The Detroit organization called in mid-January and asked if he'd return to baseball as hitting coach of the Class A Lakeland club in Florida, teaching fledglings the intricacies of striking the ball but not striking out.

He jumped at the opportunity and was given his family's blessing. "You do it, dad," they chorused.

"I'm looking forward to that -- it'll be a great time," said Herndon. "I had seven years in the Majors with Detroit, but this is more fun and I'm eager to learn and have a good time. I'm glad they called me. It's a great honor to be invited back."

Still, Herndon will always acknowledge that his baseball life wouldn't have happened if others before him hadn't broken the barriers of race, ignorance and the conventions of an earlier time.

Every time Herndon steps into his garage and cranks the engine, in his sightline is a huge poster of Jackie Robinson, flashing that familiar baggy-pants uniform and fearsome face.

It's a poignant reminder of his baseball bloodlines.

"I grew up in the South [Sunflower, Miss.] but never had racial problems," said Herndon, now 52. "You can always find something if you dig deep enough. But if you don't argue with somebody, there's no argument.

"I'd get things thrown at me, but ignored the negativity. I didn't have the problems Jackie and the others had, but I have great respect for guys who went through that. I admire him as a symbol of all those guys."

Herndon treated his baseball brethren with honor -- and vice-versa. He remembers Detroit coach Vada Pinson's invaluable friendship, being guided as a young Giant by aging veteran Willie Montanez, and being inspired by former San Francisco standout Gary Matthews, whom he called "my favorite ballplayer of all time." He remembers pitcher Randy Moffitt as a "special gentleman" and loved ex-Tigers skipper Sparky Anderson.

"I had great admiration for them, especially all the brothers who came before me," said Herndon. "I've tried to carry myself well to honor them, for they made it easy for me."

Rich Draper is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.