To me, the most baffling sports thing that happened Sunday was not the Dolphins’ beautifully executed last-play trickery to stagger and defeat the Patriots.
Nor was it the revelation that as a last line of defense, Rob Gronkowski roughly has the range of current-day Tim Fox, once a superb Patriots safety who presumably has lost a step now that he’s 65 years old.
No, it was a baseball item that came out of nowhere that baffled me more than any other sporting plot twists Sunday. Harold Baines, a fine hitter who belongs in the theoretical Hall of Very Good but was only fleetingly great during his 22-year career, was elected along with former Red Sox closer Lee Smith to the Baseball Hall of Fame by the 16-person Today’s Game Era Committee.
Right. The real one, in Cooperstown, where the legends and immortals reside. I don’t think Smith belongs, either, but I get the case. His job was to collect saves, and when he retired, he was the all-time leader in that category, as flawed as it is. But Baines? I was so stunned by his election that I wasn’t even sure what punctuation to use when I heard the news. Baines? Baines! Then, finally, a simple, resigned Baines.
I’m not sure he even should have been a candidate on this ballot, let alone an inductee. He was an accomplished player, with 2,866 hits, 384 homers, and six All-Star berths, but he never came in higher than ninth in the Most Valuable Player voting (1985), led the league in exactly one offensive category (slugging percentage, 1984), and spent more time as a designated hitter during his career than he did as an outfielder.
He was good for a long time — his adjusted OPS was 102 or better every season from 1981 to 1999 — but this is not the Professional Hitters With Longevity Hall of Fame. He didn’t have the numbers even with the longevity. His best season was better than Stephen Drew’s best season by 0.3 Wins Above Replacement.
I don’t want to diminish Baines, but it’s unavoidable. He passes no Hall of Fame tests, and the Baseball Writers Association of America (of which I am a member) got it right, never giving him higher than 6.1 percent of the vote in his five years on the ballot. He seems like a nice guy, and he definitely is a first-ballot choice for the Had A Beard Since Nursery School Hall of Fame along with James Worthy, but I can’t be totally happy for someone who gets an honor they don’t deserve.
I figured the ghost of Bill Veeck must have pulled a few strings to get him in, but upon inspection of the 16-member committee, it seems even more dubious than some kind of paranormal activity. Both Tony La Russa, his first manager with the White Sox, and Jerry Reinsdorf, the White Sox owner, were among the voters. It sure looks like high-powered cronyism in action.
Without even considering those stained by performance-enhancing-drug scandals like Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds who are stuck in purgatory, there are a number of players on this year’s BBWAA ballot who are more worthy of election than Baines, including Scott Rolen, Larry Walker, Andruw Jones, Todd Helton, Lance Berkman, and Omar Vizquel, none of whom are likely to get in this year if ever.
I recognize that Wins Above Replacement should not be a be-all, end-all — it’s another helpful player evaluation tool for those who care to learn what it represents — but isn’t it somewhat telling that if he were on this year’s ballot, Baines would rank 23rd in WAR (38.7), right between Placido Polanco (41.5) and Derek Lowe (34.4)?
Baines was worth fewer WAR than current candidate Roy Oswalt (50.1) in part because of his status as a designated hitter who had no defensive or base running value. In fact, Oswalt played as many games in the outfield during his career (1, in 2010 for two innings after a teammate was ejected) as Baines played during the last nine seasons of his career.
The biggest problem is not that Baines fails to meet the definition and parameters of excellence required of a Hall of Famer. The problem is the opposite: He now is the definition of a Hall of Famer, and his election opens up a case for a lot of other players, some who have been overlooked, but many who don’t belong.
There are so many players better than Baines who did not make it into the Hall. A short list of just the hitters: Dwight Evans, Lou Whitaker, Keith Hernandez, Dale Murphy, Tony Oliva, Dave Parker, Bobby Grich, Fred Lynn, Al Oliver, Kenny Lofton, Thurman Munson, Graig Nettles, Jim Edmonds, Dick Allen, Ted Simmons, Minnie Minoso. I mean, there are players who were far more valuable than Baines that have no shot at the Hall, among them Toby Harrah, Jack Clark, Ellis Burks, Paul O’Neill, Cesar Cedeno, Jose Cruz, Buddy Bell, and Carl Crawford.
Heck, I got a suggestion this morning from a reader that Baines’s induction might help Jason Varitek’s case. Varitek got 0.5 percent of the vote in his one year on the ballot (2017), and give or take a vote, that’s about what he deserved. But you never know what might happen if he has a couple of ex-Red Sox pals on the assorted committees in the future.
I don’t like being negative about the Hall of Fame, so I suppose there are blessings to be found here. The Hall of Fame has had cronyism come into play in the past, especially when Frankie Frisch helped shoehorn in several unworthy former Cardinals teammates during his time on the Veterans Committee in the ’70s, and it didn’t ruin the Hall.
Baines’s election also means there is no argument whatsoever to keep designated hitters like Edgar Martinez and David Ortiz out. And it might open the doors to deserving superior players who were overlooked by the BBWAA, starting with the criminally overlooked Whitaker as well as Evans.
I should clarify. I mean Dwight Evans, the Red Sox legend, not Darrell Evans, who hit 414 homers in 21 years in the majors. I wouldn’t put Darrell Evans in — even though he, too, had a better career than Baines. C’mon, you knew that was coming.