Harold Baines has been a punchline before. At a presidential debate in 2000, George W. Bush, the former owner of the Texas Rangers, invoked him when asked to name the biggest mistake of his adult life: “I signed off on that wonderful transaction — Sammy Sosa for Harold Baines,” Bush said.
Now Baines is a Hall of Famer and Sosa is an afterthought, his steroid-era home run binge largely discredited. Baines will make a speech this summer in Cooperstown, New York, thanks to a panel vote Sunday that no one saw coming.
Voters on the Today’s Game Era Committee elevated Baines and Lee Smith to the Hall of Fame, with Smith collecting all 16 votes and Baines receiving 12 of 16, meeting the 75 percent threshold for induction. Smith held the career saves record for 13 years and once got more than half the votes from the writers. Baines peaked at 6.1 percent.
“To be honest, I wasn’t sitting around waiting for the call,” Baines said Monday. “I didn’t play for the Hall of Fame. I played the game to have a job and to try to win championships.”
The first overall pick in the 1977 draft, he played 22 seasons, collected 2,866 hits and made six All-Star teams. He was so revered by the Chicago White Sox that they retired his No. 3 jersey a month after trading him to Bush’s Rangers in 1989. Then the White Sox brought him back — twice — as a player and again as a coach.
Their owner, Jerry Reinsdorf, was part of the voting committee Sunday. So was Hall of Famer Tony La Russa, who managed Baines with the White Sox and the Oakland Athletics. Eight other Hall of Famers, plus three other executives and three news media representatives, made up the panel.
La Russa praised Baines’ longevity, pure hitting stroke and ability to hit in the clutch. Baines was too humble to campaign for himself, La Russa said, and missed out on 3,000 hits because of two prolonged MLB work stoppages in his career.
“There was a lot of discussion — in the ’80s and the ’90s, that’s 20 years, in just about every offensive category, he was in the top four or five guys, the best in our game,” La Russa said. “I just think he was a little too quiet.”
It is safe to say that modern metrics, like wins above replacement and OPS+, were not widely debated. Baines compiled 38.7 WAR and an OPS+ (on-base-plus-slugging percentage, adjusted for league and ballpark) of 121, both well below Cooperstown standards.
Recent players with more WAR include Tim Salmon, Reggie Sanders and Andy Van Slyke. Recent players with a better OPS+ include J.D. Drew, Andre Ethier and Nick Johnson. Again, all had excellent careers. You wonder, with the election of Baines, where the line for induction now sits.
In some ways, his election is a triumph of traditional stats in an era of more refined — or more confusing — evaluation metrics. Every eligible player with more hits than Baines is already in the Hall, except for two with steroids ties (Barry Bonds and Rafael Palmeiro) and Omar Vizquel, who debuted on the ballot last winter with 37 percent.
Like Baines, Vizquel never got a first-place vote for Most Valuable Player; the writers did not view them as dominant in their time. Unlike Baines, who was mostly a designated hitter, Vizquel was a magician on defense, with 11 Gold Gloves at shortstop. You have to believe he will now make it, eventually.
What about a player like Don Mattingly, who peaked at 28.2 percent on the writers’ ballot but might have been the game’s best player in the mid-1980s? Mattingly won an MVP award for the Yankees in 1985, hit .307 to Baines’ .289, made six All-Star teams and won nine Gold Gloves in his 12 full seasons.
Mattingly was in Las Vegas on Monday for baseball’s winter meetings as the manager of the Miami Marlins. Two of his other American League contemporaries of the 1980s, Jack Morris and Alan Trammell, were inducted by a different committee last winter. A process once famously stingy is now more open to reconsidering candidates the writers rejected — though Mattingly claimed not to care much.
“Honestly, the Hall of Fame comes, you get in, OK, you write ‘HOF’ on a ball and after that, your life’s going to be the same,” he said, adding that he was happy for Smith and Baines. Only with a follow-up question would Mattingly compare himself with Baines.
“When you see Harold, I think he played 22 years and you end up with a pile of numbers that grow and grow,” he said. “I think Harold had 2,800 hits. I get 21-something, I do it in 12 years, 13 years. I just didn’t play long enough, wasn’t able to stay healthy long enough to really put that pile of numbers together.”
He added: “There was a period of time that I could hit with anybody and do things on the field, at my position and with the bat, that nobody else was doing.”
Mattingly had a big impact, but not longevity or exceptional advanced metrics (42.4 WAR, 127 OPS+). A different class of passed-over candidates had extraordinary WAR values, but perhaps less fame: players like Buddy Bell, Dwight Evans, Bobby Grich, Rick Reuschel and Lou Whitaker, none of whom ever got more than 10.4 percent of the writers’ vote.
One player this election almost surely helps is Edgar Martinez, David Bell’s former teammate with the Seattle Mariners. Martinez reached Cooperstown’s doorstep last year, with 70.4 percent of the writers’ vote, and this is his final year of eligibility in that forum. Martinez, also a DH, had 68.4 WAR and a 147 OPS+.
There is a simpler way to explain Martinez’s candidacy: Major League Baseball named an award for him, given annually to the best DH. Clearly, with Baines now in the Hall of Fame, Martinez should be, too.
Baines’ signature moment may have come in Chicago on May 9, 1984, when he ended the longest game in major league history — 8 hours, 6 minutes — with a towering home run to beat Milwaukee in the 25th inning.
Baines, ever understated, gave a succinct postgame summary.
“The writers came up to him after the game: ‘You got all of that one,’ and he said, ‘Evidently,’” La Russa said. “That’s about as precise as you can be.”
Debate it all you want, but the case has been decided. Harold Baines, Hall of Famer? Evidently.