Column: A puzzling Hall of Fame selection for Baines

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Before the weekend there probably wasn’t a bookie in this gambling town who would offer any kind of odds on Harold Baines making the baseball Hall of Fame.

Way too much of a long shot after not even being remotely considered by the writers who get first crack at the voting. They dismissed Baines year after year until he fell so far off the Hall of Fame ballot that his name was removed.

Yet there Baines was at a podium Monday inside the Mandalay Bay resort, standing in front of many of those same writers with a big grin on his face. There he was choking up when thinking about his father and how proud he would be that his son was a member of the most hallowed of all the halls in all the sports.

And in front of him were a lot of people wondering — at least quietly — why Baines is going into the Hall of Fame after being considered not worthy for so many years.

“Well, they can’t take it away from me now,” Baines said later, “even if they don’t think I should be there.”

No they can’t, even if Baines took a back door into the Hall that seemed to be unlocked when no one was looking.

His numbers alone — both traditional and new-age — don’t make a case that Baines is a Hall of Famer. Neither does the fact he was a DH most of his career, and in 22 years never finished in the top eight vote getters for MVP consideration.

But he played a lot of games and had a lot of hits, though he didn’t reach the 3,000-hit mark that is considered a Hall of Fame measure.

And, after a long career he had some influential friends on his side.

“You look at his record and it can’t be denied,” said Tony La Russa, who managed Baines in Chicago and in Oakland. “He was in the top four or five of every offensive category for 20 years, he was just a little too quiet.”

La Russa was part of a 16-member, Hall-picked committee put together to make sure no deserving player gets left behind. Those members took a big swing and voted for Baines and Lee Smith to join others the Baseball Writers’ Association of America will vote next month to induct in next summer’s ceremonies.

Yet while Smith was a unanimous pick of the committee, Baines got the minimum of 12 votes to join him in the Hall. And he was as surprised as anyone to get the call he was joining a rarified club.

“I wasn’t sitting around thinking about it, to be honest,” the 59-year-old said.

That Baines was mostly ignored by baseball writers during the time he was eligible — his biggest vote total was 6.1 percent when 75 percent is needed for induction — was partly because his candidacy was hurt by an inherent bias against the DH position by many writers. Smith also was hurt in voting because relief pitchers traditionally didn’t get the votes starters did.

Baines didn’t play defense, didn’t hit well against lefties, and never had 200 hits or 30 home runs in a season. His new-age metrics weren’t that good, either, with a career 38.7 Wins Above Replacement by baseballreference.com that is behind other players who haven’t been voted in by the writers, and his 2,866 hits in 22 seasons qualify more for a longevity award than anything.

But the committee of second chances — formally called Today’s Game Era Committee — had La Russa and Joe Torre as members advocating on his behalf. The committee also had Jerry Reinsdorf, the White Sox owner who a decade ago had a statue of Baines unveiled outside the team’s ballpark, as a member.

“In my mind with the game on the line that’s who you wanted up,” Reinsdorf said.

Reinsdorf was among those pushing for Baines and it’s hard to blame him. Baines was a good player for a long time, and a nice guy without any hint of controversy.

Indeed, baseball could use more players — and more people — like Harold Baines.

But to be in the Hall of Fame requires even better credentials. And baseball writers carefully studied those credentials over the years, only to find Baines lacking.

Now that he’s in, the debate begins anew over his qualifications.

And the biggest one, perhaps, was that he had good friends in high places.

____

Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg@ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg

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