Tim Raines can stop retroactively beating the Mets now. Ever since his Hall of Fame election came into view a couple of months ago, I’ve seen two clips repeatedly: Tim Raines beating the Mets with his baserunning (sliding into second base on a successful stolen base attempt) and Tim Raines beating the Mets with his bat (hitting a grand slam off Jesse Orosco when neither a World Series-saving lefty nor the scourge of collusion could stop him). Based on archival footage, a Montreal Expo continuously ran wild and slugged mightily against the New York Mets, thus making the rooting life of a Mets fan endlessly miserable.
Did anybody tape Raines doing anything else besides beating the Mets?
Whoever picks the clips to illustrate the essence of a Hall of Fame candidate pretty much got it right, because those actualities are actually how I remember Raines, a fearsome opponent on a regular basis throughout the 1980s, when if you were asked when you thought Rock might roll into Cooperstown, you’d say he’s on his way there now and he’ll no doubt make it before long.
He was on his way, but he ended up there after long…way after. Raines, who debuted with Montreal in September 1979 and partook of a few more sips of coffee the next year, was around forever before anybody had heard of his fellow Class of 2017 inductees Jeff Bagwell and Ivan Rodriguez. I was watching this guy beat the Mets when I was in high school, and I assure you I haven’t been in high school for quite a while. The writers, not some veterans committee, just voted him in. Such a development implies recency. It’s as if I wasn’t in twelfth grade two-thirds of my lifetime ago. Thanks for the shot of youth, BBWAA. See what you can do about giving the Grammy for Record of the Year to “Bette Davis Eyes” next month.
I graduated the same spring Tim Raines truly burst onto the scene, 1981 — and if any ballplayer could be said to have burst onto a scene, it was Raines. I was hoping it would be another leadoff hitter.
Nineteen Eighty-One was the second year in which the Mets were scheduled to rise from the valley of the ashes the late ’70s left behind in Flushing. The Magic was evanescently Back in 1980. It was advertised as Real going forward. One of the wizards who was going to abra-ca-dabra us out of the second division was a speedy rookie outfielder named Mookie Wilson. The prospect reports predicted Mookie, who we glimpsed late the previous season, was gonna get on base and run like no Met before him.
And he did. Just not immediately. Mookie got off to a shaky start in his first full season, batting only .216 and stealing one solitary base through the Mets’ first dozen games. He wasn’t walking, he wasn’t running, he was just getting his feet wet. Fair enough, except someone I hadn’t given much thought to leading up to Opening Day was stealing bases and Mookie’s thunder like crazy. In that same stretch during which Mookie scuffled at the top of the Mets’ order, Tim Raines — batting in the same leadoff spot for another team — excelled. Over the Expos’ first thirteen games of ’81, Raines was a .380 batter, a .952 slugger and on base almost half the time. He had thirteen steals in his back pocket, or one for every game he’d played.
This, I reasoned, was what we were supposed to be getting from Wilson. The wrong rookie was shaping up as the Mookie of the Year. My impression was forged from an up-close perspective. The Mets and Expos faced off six times between April 18 and April 26. The Expos took five of them. Raines starred. Wilson didn’t. Mookie would have his day. Tim was having plenty of them early and often.
The days became the better part of a decade. The Expos didn’t necessarily live up to their Team of the ’80s projections, but Raines remained formidable, never somebody you wanted to see the Mets let get on base, for if he reached first, there was a good chance he was going to extend his trip to touch second, third and home. When he became a free agent after 1986, a bidding war for his services seemed a decent bet to break out. Pitchers and catchers couldn’t prevent Raines from running, but colluding owners cut down his options on the not-so-open market. Twenty-six major league franchises were suddenly run by true gentlemen who, my word, would never attempt to poach another team’s star, never mind that stars like Raines were supposed to be unencumbered by previous contractual obligations. The way things went, Raines couldn’t go anywhere, leaving him no choice except to go back from whence he came, which was Montreal, which happened to be in New York on May 2, 1987, the date of the first game he was eligible to play after a May 1 deadline redirected him back to the Expos.
Raines burst all over again onto the scene that Saturday afternoon, going 4-for-5 versus the Mets, the fourth of those hits being the grand slam off Orosco MLBN will be happy to cue up for you in case you require visual evidence of Raines’s excellence. It seems to be the only video that exists of Raines’s hitting skills.
I guess there are other clips out there. Raines played until 2002, by which time tape and digital technology presumably managed to capture a few other highlights of his. He left Montreal following 1990 and bounced around a bit as his production inevitably leveled off. To me he would always be the Mookie of the Year from 1981, mercifully removed from my eighteen-times-per-annum field of vision. Your divisional opponents can get on your nerves. The Expos got on my nerves in the era that Raines made them go. That’s a compliment. I’ve intermittently mourned the Montreal Expos since they morphed into the Washington Whatchamacallits, but constant opponents aren’t for mourning. They’re for spiting. I spite the Phillies, the Marlins, the Braves, the Whatchamacallits even. I spite the Cardinals, Cubs and Pirates when applicable for crimes committed to the Metropolitan psyche between 1969 and 1993. The Expos, due to their lack of existence, I tend to give a pass to.
Bygones should be bygone, even if you prefer Raines’s Montreal Expos weren’t. Defeats inflicted decades ago are irreversible. Life went on in 1981 and 1987 and so forth. Life stopped going on for the Expos and their fans in 2004. Who would root against a memory that won’t be coming to bat ever again? Spite has an honest place in a fan’s heart, but it shouldn’t overshadow our better angels.
Except the Expos live again through Raines stealing second and homering against the Mets over and over. Seeing him as he was in those contexts doesn’t touch off the best of my instincts. I may like and respect Raines and appreciate what his induction will mean to a group of partisans who’ve had nothing except memorialization of their memories to cheer since 2004, but I gotta tell ya: when I see Raines playing against the Mets the way I remember Raines playing against the Mets, I bristle as I did when Tim and his team were in their prime.
I’m enjoying disliking the Montreal Expos again. A Mets fan should dislike the Expos. Opponents are not to be cherished. They are to be, at best, grudgingly acknowledged for their splendor. They can also be detested. That’s what they’re for. That’s what the Expos were there for from 1969 through 2004, same as everybody else the Mets opposed in the National League East. When the Expos vanished from the face of the continent, the proper emotion to tap when they crossed the green fields of the mind was wistfulness. There were no more Montreal Expos. It was a sad state of affairs. They were a part of our lives several series a year for thirty-six years and brought spice and variety to our schedule. There was élan to playing the Expos, particularly visiting the Expos. There was something special.
Of course you’re gonna miss that. But what you don’t realize you’re missing is the enmity of opposition, of gritting your teeth and snarling and conjuring up whammies to stick it to those stupid Expos. It’s a skill set that no longer has any application, as pointless as raising a hackle at the sight of a Kentucky Colonels logo or having it in for the Ford-Dole ticket.
So, even if it’s just for a little while, in the immediate aftermath of Raines’s election and then again this summer when the scene shifts to Cooperstown, bring on the dormant notion of the hated Expos. Bring on the deep-seated resentment of a great player doing great things and how it made your innings miserable. It’s better to remember Expos for being Expos, not for being bygone.
Mookie Wilson, who had himself a fine career, was a Met in part because of the work of an outstanding scout, Harry Minor; Tracy Ringolsby explains their connection here. Minor also signed off on the drafting of Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Wally Backman, Hubie Brooks, Kevin Elster, Kevin Mitchell and Gregg Jefferies, among others. On the same night Raines, Bagwell and Rodriguez learned they would be inducted into the Hall of Fame, I was in the audience for a fascinating discussion of baseball scouting, and the hightly entertaining speaker brought up Minor’s name, ironically for something Harry considered the worst miss of his long and distinguished scouting career. Minor watched a young Greg Maddux and reported back to the Mets that whatever his potential, he was probably a little too small to make it in the majors, so maybe the Mets shouldn’t select him in the next draft.
Oh well, you can’t win them all. On the other hand, you can’t win anything in baseball without men like Harry Minor skillfully deciphering talent. Minor was enormously important to the Mets as a scout between 1967 and 2011, encompassing the championships of 1969 and 1986, accomplishments that have Harry’s fingerprints all over them. The Mets honored him with their Hall of Fame Award the same day they inducted Mike Piazza into the team shrine in 2013, the last time the Mets held such a ceremony. You can be forgiven if you didn’t much notice Minor that Sunday. Piazza cast an enormous shadow and scouts tend to thrive where nobody else is looking.
Minor died on January 18, just as baseball was celebrating the newest class of Hall of Famers. Scouts don’t receive Cooperstown consideration. The shadows apparently stretch to Upstate New York that way. Yet there is no obscuring the results of the work they do. Harry Minor, who was in baseball one way or another for sixty-five years, forty-five of them with the Mets, helped provide us with some of our best days.