On giants’ shoulders: Why Harold Baines deserves Cooperstown

Harold Baines. Really? Really.

I was in the ‘Really?’ camp even up until about a week ago. All I remember firsthand about Baines’ career was that he was a pinch-hitting savant; a guy with an almost-lazy swing who was always showing up late in games as a pinch hitter. A that guy, like Jesse Orosco or Julio Franco or Ruben Sierra: guys who had entire careers before appearing in my baseball conscience.

So perhaps I’m a victim of the Reinsdorf propaganda campaign, or perhaps we should reconsider how important it is to consider context in addition to–and, occasionally, in place of–data.

Harold Baines is a Hall of Famer. This is no longer merely an illocutionary statement.

Over 22(!) seasons, Baines amassed 2866 hits and 1628 RBI with an .820 OPS as a career .289 hitter. As a pinch hitter, the toughest offensive role in baseball, Baines slashed .313/.387/.427. As a designated hitter, he bridged the gap from Hal McRae, Jim Rice and Rico Carty to Edgar Martinez, Frank Thomas and, later, David Ortiz.

By the way, of those players who reached his hits, doubles (488) and RBI totals, only Adrian Beltre, Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, Rafael Palmeiro and Barry Bonds are not in the Hall of Fame. Four of those five likely will be inducted at some point. The other 14 were locks, including Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron. Only eight reached those milestones in fewer games.

No, Baines was not Ty Cobb. But he certainly wasn’t suspected of better baseball through pharmacology, either. Sunday night, SI’s apparently-apopleptic Jon Tayler argued that, “There’s nothing to Baines’ Hall of Fame case beyond his prodigious hit total, and he got there by piling up thousands of plate appearances as a plodding DH who could barely play the field.”

Aside from Pete Rose‘s ‘prodigious hit total’, there isn’t much, either, as a slap-hitting compiler who was essentially Paul Molitor in the field, in which case we might as well also say that Molitor, too, DH’d his way to the Hall of Fame.

Sorry, Jon, you can’t penalize Baines for his team(s) exercising their American League-granted right to DH him. Tayler–and the myriad others grumbling into their corn flakes and Monday sports pages–are not only chasing windmills, but they’re attacking the wrong windmills altogether. The designated hitter is a thing, it’s been a thing for over 45 years now and those who have done well as designated hitters (and pinch hitters, for that matter) deserve fair consideration of their work toward induction into the Hall of Fame. One cannot blame Harold Baines for playing his part as dictated to him by the teams to which he was contractually-obligated to play.

Baines’ Hall eligibility spanned from 2007 through 2011, when he fell below the 5% threshold for nomination. This was also pre-BBWAA reforms in 2014, just as the ballot became log jammed with causes célèbres, suspected PED users and coming out of the wake of the supposed steroid era, and generally really, really good ballplayers subjected to the whims and ballot limitations of a self-deluded and self-righteous voting body.

The only reason he didn’t get the Tim Raines treatment is because he didn’t have Raines’ glove or speed. In fairness, Raines didn’t have Harold Baines’ bat, either. (Baines has more hits, doubles, home runs and essentially the same OPS+ as the guy [rightly] dragged into Cooperstown by sabermetricians. Baines was also superior in the postseason with comparable games played while not being a hanger-on on those dynasty 90s Yankees clubs.)

It’s the contextual piece, though, that makes this a not-unjustifiable induction: Baines is an important link between the 70s and 90s for DHs. Baines paved the way for guys like Martinez (who has fewer hits and home runs) and Ortiz, both whom have legitimate Hall of Fame bodies of work. They, like all other players, stand on the shoulders of the giants who have gone before. Baines undeniably helped define the standard expected of a DH.

Harold Baines is a Hall of Famer. Deal with it.

Further, as I’ve argued in this space and elsewhere, the Hall of Fame has two natural and necessary components that lend itself inexorably toward a ‘big hall’ perspective:

1) The Hall of Fame is a museum, celebrating the greats of the game, including those who might have been overlooked (which is why we have committee votes in the first place. Just because you’ve never heard of Willard Brown or Dazzy Vance doesn’t mean they’re not Hall of Famers.) That said, the Hall of Fame is only as good as the players in it. This means voters should indeed be prudent, but also recognize that players existed within a cultural context and that prior voters may well have gotten it wrong. This is why Jack Morris is and should be a Hall of Famer and why Dale Murphy and Ted Simmons should be, saying nothing of Buck O’Neil’s criminal absence from Cooperstown. Not everyone who isn’t there isn’t worthy.

And 2) Baseball’s history is only expanding and, as that arc grows longer, it must necessarily include more players. The Hall will never be smaller than it is, and it’s not like we’re arguing for Corey Koskie‘s induction here. (With all apologies to the beloved one-time Twin and Brewer, and whose career was cut far too short.) This is a legitimate candidate with a legitimate body of work that warrants legitimate consideration. The fact that he didn’t get that from the writers is an indictment upon them, not him.

Harold Baines is a Hall of Famer. Really.

Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.

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