LAS VEGAS — Harold Baines somehow played 22 years in the big leagues with little attention, which was perfectly fine with him. “Being a superstar,” the former DH once said, “is more of a headache than it is anything else.”
He wasn’t a superstar. Not even close. But the attention he never craved is now his—with the most stunning Hall of Fame selection I have seen. The 16-person Today’s Game Era Committee gave Baines the 12 votes he needed for selection to the Hall on Sunday, with former closer Lee Smith joining him while getting all 16 votes. It was a very good day for specialists who played a long time.
There was never a strong hint Baines was a Hall of Famer—not when he played, not when the writers considered his candidacy (he fell off after five years, topping out at just 6.1%), not in any run-up to this committee.
Baines gained election largely on the basis of 2,866 hits, and no doubt was helped by influential committee members Tony LaRussa, his manager in Chicago and Oakland, and Jerry Reinsdorf, the White Sox owner who erected a statue of Baines in Chicago. If you stretch really, really, really hard you can make a case that being “a professional hitter” for so long is worthy of Cooperstown. When he retired in 2001, Baines held the “records” for most games, hits, homers and RBI for a DH – which just means he was the best compiler among only American League players in a 28-year window. (Edgar Martinez, now a lock for induction on the writers’ ballot this year, and David Ortiz since eclipsed him.) Baines won just one Silver Slugger Award.
But the attention here isn’t just about his election; it’s about how it influences many players on ballots for years to come. How do you now not put Rusty Staub in the Hall? (He had 2,716 hits and more than 600 more games in the outfield than Baines.) Omar Vizquel? (More hits than Baines, 2,877, and a far superior defensive component.) Al Oliver? (He had 2,743 hits and a greater WAR, more MVP votes and more Silver Sluggers than Baines.) Tommy John and Jim Kaat? (They have 288 and 283 wins, respectively, making them the Baines of starting pitchers.)
But don’t stop at compilers. Twelve months from now, John, Dave Parker, Don Mattingly and Dale Murphy are likely to return to the Modern Baseball Era Committee ballot. Without exception, every year they were on the writers’ ballot with Baines all of them out-polled Baines.
What about Mark McGwire? The screening committee kicked the steroid-tainted McGwire off this ballot. He shared a writers’ ballot with Baines for five years, outpolling him by a whopping 617–150 vote margin.
Baines had two seasons with a WAR of at least 3.0. Two. That’s it. There are 791 players not in the Hall of Fame with more than two 3-WAR seasons, including Brendan Ryan, Brad Ausmus, Corey Koskie, Larry Bowa and Oscar Gamble.
Baines never had 200 hits, never scored 90 runs, never hit 30 homers, never hit 40 doubles, never finished in the top five in OPS, never finished in the top eight in MVP voting, rarely played defense for his final 15 seasons, and had a .313 OBP against lefthanded pitching.
After 16 years in which the various Hall oversight committees did not select a living former player, they now have ushered in four in the past two years (Baines, Smith, Jack Morris and Alan Trammell). The doors are swinging wider.
The other noteworthy outcome of this committee vote was that George Steinbrenner again received little support from a committee. To save candidates from embarrassment, the Hall releases the vote totals only of candidates who receive more than five votes. All we know is that Steinbrenner received “fewer than five votes” and is 0-for-4 on Hall ballots without ever getting close. He won more games and more championships than any owner during his tenure as Yankees owner and helped usher in the modern era of free agency. Yes, he was suspended twice from baseball, but reinstated each time to a member in good standing. You might argue owners have no place in the Hall, but the fact is that they do, and the most impactful one of the free agent era can’t even get close.