"Personally, I've never seen a more clutch player," said White Sox general manager Ken Williams of Baines. "There may have been guys who have hit more home runs, whether it was against left-handed pitchers or right-handed pitchers, or guys who have driven in more runs or played more games. But I'm talking for my money, there never has been a more clutch player than Harold Baines. Not during my time."
Clutch hitting for Baines, who turns 50 on March 15, led to an amazing 1,628 RBIs despite only topping the 100-RBI plateau in 1982 (105) and 1985 (113) with the White Sox, and with Baltimore and Cleveland in 1999 (103). Baines turned 40 before the 1999 campaign.
It's a model for consistent excellence on Baines' part, accomplished the right way through dedication on and off the field, without any questionable shortcuts. In fact, his overall body of work with the White Sox was recognized on July 20, 2008, when a statue of the White Sox legend was unveiled in the right-center-field concourse at U.S. Cellular Field. Baines became the organization's seventh recipient of such a special honor.
Receiving what he termed as a moment that might be "better than the Hall of Fame" because it showed his family "we represented the White Sox well," Baines briefly became emotional when thanking his wife, Marla, on that sunny afternoon. But the current question is whether his level of achievement will be good enough to get Baines elected to present another eloquent speech at the Hall of Fame.
The present ballot marks Baines' third chance after retiring with the White Sox in 2001. Needing 5 percent of the vote to remain eligible for future Hall of Fame consideration from the Baseball Writers' Association of America, Baines barely has made the cut in both 2007 and 2008. Baines, who currently serves as the White Sox first-base coach, received 29 votes and 5.3 percent support in 2007 and 28 votes and 5.2 percent support in 2008.
A candidate must get 75 percent of the vote to gain election, with former Red Sox slugger Jim Rice (72.2 percent), former Expos and Cubs outfielder Andre Dawson (65.9) and former Twins ace Bert Blyleven (61.9) standing as the top three returning vote-getters.
Rickey Henderson, whose career spanned 25 years and nine teams, headlines the newcomers to the 2009 Hall of Fame ballot. Henderson, who has never announced his retirement, last played for the Dodgers in 2003. The 1990 American League MVP is the all-time leader in runs scored (2,295), stolen bases (1,406) and is second in walks (2,190).
Live coverage of the election results can be seen on MLB.com on Monday, Jan. 12.
Those in the know with the White Sox believe Baines deserves a better Hall of Fame fate. Along with Baines' tremendous RBI total, placing him 28th all-time, the left-handed slugger finished with a .289 average, 384 home runs, 488 doubles, 1,299 runs scored, 1,062 walks against just 1,441 strikeouts and a most impressive 2,830 games played. Baines also checks in at 2,866 career hits, ranking Baines 40th, but also leaving him 134 short of what has been considered the magic number for enshrinement.
This particular number bothers Reinsdorf more so than Baines. The White Sox chairman, who counts Baines as one of his favorite people, feels somewhat personally responsible for Baines coming up short of 3,000.
"What really has bothered me for a long time is that if we hadn't traded him, he would have his 3,000 hits and he would be a lock for the Hall of Fame," said Reinsdorf, who oversaw Baines' trade to Texas on July 29, 1989 and to Baltimore on July 29, 1997. "We traded him twice and into bad situations where he was a platoon player.
"If he stayed with us, he would have gone over 3,000 hits. If he doesn't get in, it would really bug me. I talk to him about it, and he just shrugs it off."
Without the automatic triggers for hits or the 500 home runs, Baines might be viewed as an extremely good player but just short of the elite level for Hall of Fame enshrinement. His numbers are comparable to Dawson, but also fall in the same group as Tony Perez and Billy Williams, who have been elected.
Many people will forget Baines' natural ability as an outfielder during the early portion of his career, finishing with 10 assists for three straight seasons from 1981 to 1983 and with 15 assists in 1986. But Baines did not play the field from 1993 through his retirement in 2001.
"He's going to have a tough time because for a good part of his career he was a designated hitter and a lot of writers won't vote for a DH," said Reinsdorf, who pointed out Baines' strong defensive ability in the outfield early on in his career.
Never one for self-promotion toward individual accolades, Baines simply feels honored to be included with his fellow standout teammates and opponents. Baines lists Edgar Martinez as probably the first DH to be elected, but without pointing to himself, Baines feels the DH definitely should be considered like any other position by perspective voters.
"It's part of the game and definitely should be included," said Baines of the DH. "If not, then get rid of it all together. Frank Thomas has been a DH a long time and he's not a Hall of Famer? That has to be addressed.
"But I'm not going to go out there and push the issue. I don't think you just go off of numbers from what I'm seeing. I don't know the criteria and I don't know exactly what voters are looking for. Maybe someone should write about the criteria.
"I was fortunate to play for 22 years," Baines said. "If I happen to get elected in my lifetime, I would be very grateful. If not, I still had a great career."
Former teammate and current White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen views the quiet Baines as one of his closest friends, but also believes Baines should campaign more for his own cause. The resume featuring Baines' 22 years of service seems to speak volumes on his behalf, not to mention six All-Star appearances and a .324 average with five home runs and 16 RBIs over 102 postseason at-bats.
But if there was one deciding factor for Baines' supporters, it was the ability to come through in the clutch that sets him apart.
"I was taught well in the Minors by Tony La Russa," Baines said. "From the seventh inning on, pitchers shouldn't want to face you because you should try to be a tough out. I never wanted to make the last out of a ballgame, and the true hitters, the consistent players, were the guys who could hit with two outs and men in scoring position."
"Don't tell me what a guy hits. Tell me when he hits it," said White Sox television voice Ken "Hawk" Harrelson, who includes Baines with Carl Yastrzemski and George Brett as the top clutch hitters he's ever witnessed in his 46 years with the game. "Harold was a seventh-, eighth- and ninth-inning player, always coming up with big base hits off tough pitching."