One of the signature moments in White Sox history speaks volumes about what made Harold Baines so great. So exceptional, in fact, that he is currently being considered for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame via the Today's Game Era ballot, the results of which will be announced at
One of the signature moments in White Sox history speaks volumes about what made Harold Baines so great. So exceptional, in fact, that he is currently being considered for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame via the Today's Game Era ballot, the results of which will be announced at Major League Baseball's Winter Meetings on Monday, Dec. 5.
On Sept. 17, 1983, a damp night on the South Side of Chicago, the Sox were on the verge of clinching the American League West title, putting them in the postseason for the first time in 24 years. A crowd of more than 45,000 people rocked old Comiskey Park, with the Sox and Seattle tied at 3 in the bottom of the ninth.
Baines stepped to the plate with one out and Julio Cruz on third. With Chicago owning a big lead in the division, it wasn't a question of whether it would clinch the title, but when. The fans, though, were hungry to see history made on this night.
Maybe a flashier player would have sought to seize on the theatrics by swinging from the heels to try to hit a dramatic homer. But that never was Baines' style.
Only 24 years old, Baines relied on the same approach that resonated with him during his entire career.
"I loved driving in runs," said Baines, looking back. "My thought always was, 'Get the run in any way possible.'"
Sure enough, Baines did what he needed to do. With a measured swing, he lofted a fly ball sufficiently deep to center field. The sacrifice fly sent a joyous Cruz scampering home with the winning and division-clinching run. During the celebration, Sox players swarmed around Baines in appreciation of the consummate professional getting the job done.
"Get the run in" was the hallmark of Baines' 22 years in the big leagues as he also became one of the most dignified and respected players in the game.
Baines admitted that he was surprised when he learned that he is a candidate for Cooperstown this year, along with players such as Orel Hershiser, Albert Belle, Mark McGwire and Will Clark; executives Bud Selig, John Schuerholz and George Steinbrenner; and managers Davey Johnson and Lou Piniella.
"I wasn't expecting it," Baines said. "I'm grateful that they included me."
Don't expect the humble, soft-spoken Baines to campaign for the Hall. That's as likely as a 90-degree day in Chicago in February.
However, the six-time All-Star has plenty of supporters more than willing to speak to why he is worthy of being elected to baseball's shrine. Several are Hall of Famers themselves.
"I think Harold is a Hall of Famer," said Tony La Russa, Baines' first manager and 2014 HOF inductee. "I guarantee you all the teams that competed against him had Harold ranked right up there with the very best players in baseball. You didn't want him to come up in the ninth inning with a chance to win the game."
Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. appreciated Baines' talents, first as an opponent and even more as a teammate in Baltimore.
"When I played against him, he was always the guy who you didn't want to have come up at a crucial part of the game," Ripken said. "[In Oakland] he played with the likes of McGwire, [Jose] Canseco, and those guys were putting up numbers. But for me, I'm thinking, 'OK, we don't want to let Harold beat us,' because he had that sort of presence in the lineup. And [when he played with the Orioles], I really understood that and got it."
White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf echoed that sentiment. Baines is one of his all-time favorite players.
"I have always said that when the game is on the line, there is no one you would rather have up at the plate than Harold Baines," Reinsdorf said. "Harold's appeal extended beyond what he did on the field. He was a great teammate, popular in the clubhouse and popular with Sox fans."
His career numbers really do speak to his Hall of Fame qualifications.
Baines' supporters stress it is essential to go even deeper. They maintain he should be judged by how he stacked up against other players in his era.
"He was one of the best players of his time, and I think that's what the Hall of Fame is about," said Jim Leyland, who was third-base coach on the Sox's '83 team. "I think during those years he played with the White Sox, he was a player that everybody talked about. He was one of the guys that was at the head of the class. Where did you rank during your era? He ranks very high, I would think."
Leyland is right. Baines ranks with Hall of Famers in many hitting categories among players from 1980-99.
"I'm a firm believer that the criteria is how good were you in your era," said long-time White Sox announcer Ken Harrelson. "Harold was one of the best in his era, especially in clutch hitting."
Baines' prowess in the clutch was formed early on. Former White Sox owner Bill Veeck famously first spotted the Maryland native as a 12-year-old playing Little League. In 1977, Veeck and the Sox were thrilled with the chance to select Baines with the No. 1 overall pick in the Draft.
Baines made a stellar first impression. Former White Sox general manager Roland Hemond still remembers receiving a report on Baines from La Russa, who managed the young prospect in Double-A Knoxville.
"[La Russa wrote] Harold was 'one of the best 7th, 8th, 9th-inning hitters with the game on the line I've ever encountered,'" Hemond said. "He had just turned 18, his first full year in pro ball. I vividly remember that report."
Baines' focus in late-inning clutch situations, at least in part, came from La Russa's advice.
"La Russa stressed that most games are won and lost in the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings," Baines recalled. "I decided I wasn't going to be an easy out from the seventh inning on."
Baines actually took that one step further. He always was a tough out whenever he had a chance to drive in runs. This stat is so telling: During his career, Baines actually batted 31 points higher with runners on base (.306) than with the bases empty (.275).
"I enjoyed hitting with runners in scoring position," Baines said. "I thrived on that pressure. I knew my teammates were counting on me."
Speaking of pressure, Baines turned it up another notch in the biggest games of his career. In 31 postseason games, he hit .324 with five homers and 16 RBIs. He hit a homer for Oakland in Game 3 of the 1990 World Series.
Ripken marveled at how Baines came through repeatedly during his two stints with Baltimore in the '90s. He felt it had to do with Baines' low-key demeanor.
"He's a quiet person overall, and he's a quiet hitter," Ripken said. "And a quiet hitter means he has control over his emotions. The biggest situations didn't seem to affect him like they affected other people, where your heart would beat a little faster, you would want to do it so badly that you would start swinging at bad pitches. He almost seemed to get calmer as the enormity of the at-bats got bigger."
That approach earned Baines enormous respect within the locker room. He led by example. Even though he was a man of few words, he always was regarded as a leader on all of his teams.
"First and foremost, when I think about Harold Baines, I've got to mention that he was a great player, but he's even a better person," said Tom Paciorek, who played with Baines on the '83 team. "It was a privilege to be on the same team with Harold. He had that quiet leadership quality about him. I think everybody that ever played with him looked up to him as a great role model -- on and off the field. He didn't pump his chest or anything like that. He just did the job."
Ripken felt Baines' leadership skills were vastly underrated.
"The fallacy ... that you have to be a rah-rah guy to be a leader is absolutely wrong, in my opinion," Ripken said. "And Harold is a really great example of it. He led by example, and when he did offer a word or two, you knew he'd been paying attention the whole time, and then it'd be the right word at the right time. I think leadership comes from many different places. Leadership comes from your knowledge and your understanding, and a direction and experience, and he provided all of those things."
Baines' teammates also appreciated what he needed to do just to get on the field. During the last week of the 1986 season, Baines injured his right knee when he stepped on the ankle of Minnesota pitcher Neal Heaton on a close play at first. The incident led to him eventually having eight knee operations, and it effectively ended his days playing in the outfield. He had been regarded as a strong right fielder.
La Russa thinks that if Baines had stayed healthy, "he would have had 3,000 hits and been automatically in the Hall of Fame."
His old Sox teammate, Ron Kittle, joked, "I would give him every one of those hits [to get to 3,000] because that's the kind of guy he is. They can take them off my stats."
Baines, though, doesn't reflect back on whether he could have gotten the extra 134 hits to get to the magic number. Again, that's not his style. In fact, he tries to turn a negative into a positive. He believes his knee issues forced him to put an extra premium on conditioning. It might have contributed to him playing as long as he did in the big leagues.
That longevity, Baines' supporters say, is another reason why he should be a Hall of Famer. His long run of excellence was underscored when at the age of 40, he hit .312 with 25 homers and 103 RBIs in 1999.
Baines admits to being a bit overwhelmed by the kind words of the people who were along with him during his 22-year journey. He saw himself as a player who simply went out to do a job with one goal in mind: Help his team win the game.
To know Baines is to know that he is not going to dwell on whether he reaches the Hall of Fame. But make no mistake, being on the Today's Game Era ballot with players and executives who were his contemporaries makes him extremely proud.
"I'm very honored," Baines said. "There were a lot of great people they could have picked [to be on the ballot]. It's nice to know someone appreciated what you did."
Ed Sherman is a contributor to MLB.com.