Crasnick: Harold Baines Has Friends In High Places
Nothing beats a bad Hall of Fame call to stoke outrage and generate spirited debate, so let’s just dispense with the niceties and get straight to the point: How in good conscience could the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame welcome seven new members to its class of 2019 and exclude Todd Rundgren? It was enough of travesty to make you want to retire to a dark room and, well, bang on a drum all day.
While that injustice was playing out, the Baseball Hall of Fame was dealing with a misstep of its own. His name is Harold Baines(^), and he’s attracting more attention as an accidental baseball immortal than he ever could as a consummate professional and serial hit collector.
The surprise came via an email announcement at the start of the Winter Meetings, before Andrew McCutchen signed with the Phillies and Scott Boras road-tested some new witticisms in his Mandalay Bay lobby sermon on the virtues of Bryce Harper. The Hall announced that Lee Smith had received a unanimous 16 votes from the today’s game era committee, and Baines landed the 12 votes required for induction. Lou Piniella fell one vote short with 11, while Orel Hershiser and Will Clark were among seven candidates who received fewer than five votes.
As a long-time Hall voter, my initial reaction to the news was, "How could we have gotten it this wrong?’’
In five years on the ballot, Baines polled 5.3, 5.2, 5.9, 6.1 and 4.8 percent. This wasn’t a case of the writers being careless and regrettably allowing Lou Whitaker, Bobby Grich, Ted Simmons or some other worthy candidate to disappear from view after one appearance. Baines had five cracks at Cooperstown, and his candidacy elicited a sustained series of shrugs and yawns before he dropped off the ballot in 2011.
Like Al Oliver, Bill Buckner, Rusty Staub and other noteworthy compilers, Baines won points for consistency but never distinguished himself with his “presence’’ or flair for making pulses quicken when he strolled into the on-deck circle. He was not a hitter who made fans postpone concession stand visits or restroom breaks. And in the aftermath of his selection, the focus inevitably fell on all the things he didn’t do during 2,830 games and 11,092 career plate appearances with the White Sox, Orioles, Athletics, Rangers and Indians.
While Baines amassed 2,866 hits, launched 384 homers and drove in 1,628 runs, his .541 slugging percentage in 1984 marked the only time he led the league in a single category. He won one Silver Slugger Award as a player whose principal attribute was his bat. And after peaking at ninth in the 1985 American League MVP race, he failed to receive a single MVP vote between ages 27 and 42.
The modern, analytically-based metrics are even less charitable to his cause. Baines’ career wins above replacement, according to Baseball-Reference.com, is 38.7, which ties him with Juan Gonzalez and Magglio Ordoñez for 351st place in history. And Baines received 66 points on Bill James’ Hall of Fame monitor, which factors in an array of awards, accomplishments and statistical achievements. That total places him at the upper end of the 0-69 “Not a Hall of Famer’’ scale.
In a bizarre twist to the story, a ballplayer who reveled in his anonymity has become a lightning rod and a unifying force for strange bedfellows in his retirement: Purists and number-crunchers, so often at odds with their Hall of Fame choices, almost universally agree that Baines falls short of the Cooperstown standard.
Baines embodies the downside of entrusting a 16-member committee to assess the candidacies of players passed over by the Baseball Writers Association of America. The “era’’ concept serves a purpose, in theory, given that writers aren’t infallible and players of a recent vintage are underrepresented in Cooperstown. Alan Trammell and Jack Morris were defensible choices, and Smith, for all the closer-bashing, saved 478 games and consistently polled in the 40-50 percent range for much of his time on the writers’ ballot.
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But Baines takes teeth-gnashing to a whole new level as the beneficiary of having friends in high places. Committee members Tony La Russa and Jerry Reinsdorf had a front-row seat during the Chicago phase of his career, and Pat Gillick was general manager in Baltimore during Baines’ run with the Orioles in the 1990s. La Russa’s personal affinity for Baines is understandable. But he didn’t help his case when he appeared on Christopher Russo’s MLB Network show, cited game-winning hits as Baines’ principal claim to immortality and called Russo “clueless’’ for disagreeing.
Anyone with an ounce of empathy has to be happy for Harold Baines, the person. When Baines choked up at his introductory news conference and expressed regret that his father isn’t alive to share in his crowning personal achievement, it provided a poignant and moving glimpse into his character. Baines gave it everything he had over a quarter-century in professional ball, and you won’t find a teammate, opponent or historical peer with a negative word to say about him.
But this is the Hall of Fame, and big-picture decisions require decision-makers to be objective and stow the sentiment. One of the most touching moments in Hall induction ceremony history came in 2001, when Bill Mazeroski lasted two and a half minutes before crying like a baby and returning to his seat. On that July Sunday in Cooperstown, everyone in the crowd could relate to Mazeroski’s sense of achievement. But in hindsight, that historic Game 7 World Series homer and lightning-quick transfer on the double-play pivot still pale in comparison to a .260 career batting average and a 36.5 WAR.
So what’s the ultimate lesson to be derived from recent events? Maybe that we can be happy for Harold Baines and still hope that future era committee participants pause to take a deep breath, put the personal agendas aside and listen to the reasoned voices in the room before they cast their votes. Only the credibility of the Hall is at stake