- Harold Baines probably isn't deserving of a Hall of Fame election, but he's in because his name appeared in front of the right committee. That isn't his fault.
A baseball player has seven ways to reach first base and five ways to get elected to the Hall of Fame. Harold Baines was just elected by the Today’s Game committee, which is not to be confused with the Modern Baseball committee, the Golden Days committee, the Early Baseball committee, or the Extremely Attractive and Witty committee, also known as the Baseball Writers Association of America.
I feel a bit for Baines, who earned the ultimate compliment only to be told he didn’t remotely deserve it. This is because he didn’t remotely deserve it. Baines was a good player who does not belong in Hall of Fame conversations, let alone the Hall of Fame. His election seems to prove what Congress and the NCAA proved long ago: If you tell people they are part of a committee, they will feel compelled to do something, even if it doesn’t make much sense.
For many years, there were two Hall of Fame committees: the BBWAA and the Veterans’ Committee. Basically, the BBWAA examined candidates for over a period of up to 15 years, and the Veterans’ Committee decided if the BBWAA got drunk and missed somebody. Sometimes the Veterans’ Committee got drunk and elected somebody. The Veterans’ Committee also elected managers, umpires and executives. There were, one presumes, several cigars involved.
Now the Veterans’ Committee is gone, replaced by all these era committees. The Hall’s motives were pure: recognizing a more diverse group of candidates, and electing more candidates from under-represented eras.
But think about this for a minute. Imagine you are a former manager, an owner, or whoever—a baseball lifer. You get a call asking you to be on the Today’s Game committee for the Hall of Fame. You’re one of just 16 people on the committee. You are in charge of electing candidates whose “greatest” contributions occurred after 1987.
Wouldn’t you think, even subconsciously, that you’re supposed to elect somebody? Who wants to go all the way to a meeting just to do nothing?
The Today’s Game Committee considered these 10 candidates: Baines, Lee Smith, Albert Belle, Joe Carter, Will Clark, Orel Hershiser, Davey Johnson, Lou Piniella, George Steinbrenner, Joe Carter and Charlie Manuel. None are clear Hall of Famers (which, of course, is the point).
You start with Smith. He got ample Hall support from the BBWAA. He held the saves record for 13 years, and in his day (and for long afterward) saves were considered the best way to measure a relief pitcher. The save, it has often been said, is the rare stat that influenced how games were managed; managers were far more likely to use their best relievers in save situations. Smith did his job very well. OK, fine. He’s in.
Now there are nine candidates left. You don’t have to elect any. You can sit around and debate silly baseball things like whether there are really seven ways to reach first base or if there are actually 23. But you want to take your job seriously, right? So you give all the candidates a good look.
Hershiser only made three All-Star teams. Carter’s on-base percentage was just .309. Will Clark? He’s a first baseman with fewer than 300 home runs.
Belle was a volatile teammate and indifferent fielder, his counting numbers (1,726 hits, 1,239 RBI) are not that great, and if he gets elected, somebody will have to call him. Nobody wants to do that.
Johnson, Manuel and Piniella each one World Series as managers. Well, so have a lot of people. You’re not sure about them. Steinbrenner was banned from the game for a while, and he oversaw one of the greatest eras in Yankees history, but also one of the worst, and he fired managers every 10 minutes … you’re just not comfortable with him.
Then there is Baines. There was a time when 3,000 hits, 400 home runs and 1,500 RBI were considered Hall of Fame benchmarks. One of the three might not get you in, but it got you close. Baines had 2,866 hits, 384 home runs and 1,628 RBI. His peak years came in relatively lean offensive times.
Everybody likes him.
One of the 16 people on the committee, White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, reveres him.
And, here’s the key: subconsciously, and maybe even consciously, you are not comparing Baines to other Hall of Famers. You are comparing him to the other candidates under consideration by the Today’s Game committee. He lasted longer than the rest. His career totals are the most impressive. And you’re supposed to elect people, because otherwise, why have a committee?
And so here we are.
It is dangerous to climb into another person’s head. (It is also creepy and illegal.) In this case, I’m climbing into 16 heads. But it makes sense, doesn’t it? That’s how otherwise bright people who love baseball and know so much about it made such a baffling decision.
Electing Harold Baines doesn’t make sense to most of us. But it must have made sense to the people.
I can’t think of another explanation. Even Baines’ basic, old-fashioned numbers of hits, home runs and RBI are not that impressive when you look closer. Baines never hit 30 home runs in a year. He had more than 100 RBI just three times. He had a lot of hits but no batting titles. He spent most of his career as a designated hitter. If he had some incredible value that did not show up in stats, it went unrecognized when he played, too. He never finished higher than ninth in MVP voting. He was not remembered for being one of the best pure contact hitters of his generation because … well, because he wasn’t. He was a good hitter for a long while.
So now Keith Hernandez, Mark Grace, Don Mattingly, Dale Murphy and assorted others from Baines’ era can get angry, because they all have better cases than Baines. But they can also get excited about their chances again. They just need to get their names in front of the right committee.