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The Baines of Our Existence

I must have read something in Baseball Digest or The Sporting News. Or maybe I saw something on This Week in Baseball or heard a mention on NBC one Saturday afternoon. Somewhere early in his career, I formed the impression that Harold Baines was a really good ballplayer, one of the best of the week or month that his name filtered into my baseball consciousness. Early impressions can be unshakable, especially when you’re not concerned with altering them later and not exposed to much countervailing evidence. Harold played each of his twenty-two seasons in the American League and would cross paths with the Mets in only six games, making the chance that I’d have Baines on the brain fairly remote. Thus, I went through the length of Harold Baines’s very long career benignly certain that he was one of the best of the years or decades when he was active. Nobody was running around saying he was, but nobody was running around saying he wasn’t.

When it was announced at the outset of the Winter Meetings that Harold Baines would be going into the Hall of Fame, I was a little surprised, given that he hadn’t been much mentioned as a contender ahead of the Today’s Game committee balloting. I was more surprised, however, at the torrent of criticism his selection provoked. Not getting mentioned much as prospective Hall of Fame material and then, in fact, becoming a Hall of Famer must angry up a whole lot of discerning blood.

My early impression of Baines as someone who would someday make a perfectly reasonable choice for Cooperstown doesn’t seem to stand up against the modern methods of determining who should be in and, more pointedly, who should be out. Baines had the kind of statistics that would look Hallworthy from a couple of eras’ remove, the way players I’d never seen and barely heard of registered as just fine when I was kid. ”Also elected by the Veterans Committee today, was Harold Baines, an accomplished batsman for the Chicago White Stockings during the Deadball Era…” Like that. “That Harold Baines must have been real good in his day,” I would have shrugged before redirecting my attention to what was then today’s game.

The actual Harold Baines was real good in his day. Not “pretty good,” which is apparently the worst thing you can call a Hall of Famer, but real good. Very good. Counterintuitively, that’s also framed as a knock because — deep breath — it’s not the Hall of Very Good. (Got it.) I don’t believe very good is anything less than what it purports to be. Baines played more than twenty years. He had almost three-thousand hits, hit almost four-hundred home runs. He made a half-dozen All-Star teams. He was regularly coveted by contending teams navigating stretch drives. He had his number retired halfway through his playing days and had a statue erected in his honor following his retirement. That’s the stuff of very good, perhaps great in a generous context.

Concomitantly, he wasn’t quite or maybe nearly as good as Phil N. deBlank, as in fill in the blank with whichever player who’s not in the Hall of Fame but has an excellent case for being in before it would occur to you to induct Harold Baines. If the vote had come down to Harold Baines vs. Gil Hodges, or Keith Hernandez, or Rusty Staub (or, less parochially, Dale Murphy, or Davey Concepcion, or Steve Garvey, to name three National Leaguers I admired from afar), I might be up in arms that Baines got in ahead of those I’ve long judged overlooked and gave a bundle of thought to besides.

But it didn’t work that way. Only twelve men were on a ballot that only sixteen voters considered. They came up with Baines and Lee Smith as their choices [1]. I was a little miffed that Davey Johnson from the same ballot was bypassed, but Davey was under consideration as a manager, and that’s a whole other plaque of worms. Davey, like Gil, has a trophy to his and our name. From a Metsian perspective, maybe everything else is immortality gravy.

Despite sufficient analytics-based evidence that others are Hallworthier than Harold, I took his election as a triumph for the too easily dismissed. It’s become fashionable to point to Baines and say, well, if he’s in, the voters (whether BBWAA members or the next committee to convene) have to seriously consider fill in the blank. That would be great, even if it didn’t get any of my Met pets any closer to Cooperstown. Baines’s original candidacy evaporated around the time the writers’ ballot was becoming subject to microscopic examination, a couple of years before what to do about the so-called steroid guys became the unavoidable story. So many players, so much debate, so little oxygen left over for anybody who didn’t jump off the page. If you weren’t anointed a cause, you received no more than a pat on the head in those endless series of columns devoted to dissecting the careers of higher-profile cases.

Consider Carlos Delgado, who put on a power display that crossed international borders and spanned a generation. Consider Johan Santana, who dominated batters in both leagues and was deemed state-of-the-art at his not insignificant peak. Consider that they each had a single shot on the writers’ ballot before disappearing from view. The veritable umpires who determine Hall of Fame fodder squeezed them both. Sure, Delgado was great. Sure, Santana was great. But we have to bemoan the size of the ballot and rend garments over somebody else now. Neither got more than a cursory glance from the tastemakers. Their fate was to be unfairly ignored by the writers until the next time a writer needed an example of somebody who got unfairly ignored.

By dint of his surprise election, it is Baines’s fate to bear the banner of the chronically/initially overlooked. He may not be the ideal avatar, but he’s carrying that banner upstate this summer. If his presence nudges the door open sooner or later for the likes of Hodges, Hernandez, Staub, Delgado, Santana, John Franco, John Olerud or even somebody of distinction who wasn’t a Met, the museum won’t crumble for inclusion. I understand standards and elitest of the elite and all that, but I rarely if ever find myself put off by somebody getting into a Hall of Fame, National Baseball or otherwise. It’s the keeping out that’s a bummer. There’s enough greatness floating about that’s gone underappreciated and there’s nothing wrong with somebody residing at the uppermost tier of very good being granted a niche.

Besides, imagine bumping into Harold Baines by chance. “I saw Harold Baines today,” you’d likely tell anybody who’d listen. “He was a great ballplayer.” You wouldn’t stop to detract from the experience with “well, maybe not as great as Phil N. deBlank if you compare their fWAR side by side.” The blanks absolutely deserve an opportunity to fill themselves in, but Baines’s reputation doesn’t deserve to be dinged in the process. More than twenty seasons. Nearly three-thousand hits and four-hundred home runs. Very good, indeed.

Oh, Lee Smith, too. You absolutely didn’t want Lee Smith on the mound in the ninth inning against your team when he was in the prime of his eighteen-season career. When I think of Smith, I first flash back to 1984, when beating the menacing Cubs was imperative for the young, aspirational Mets. Smith faced the Mets in seven games that hopeful season. He was a substantial reason hope was not enough to get us where wanted to go. Chicago’s record versus New York when Lee pitched in ’84: 6-1. Smith won two of those decisions and saved three more. The Cubs were monstrous as summer steamed into September and Smith was an essential component of their sadly unbustable success.

On a more personal level, I think of Smith from either end of the 1990s, once as his prime continued, once when he was done quelling offensive threats. On September 4, 1990, the Mets and Pirates were running nip and tuck for leadership in the NL East. We started this Tuesday night a half-game up, finishing a two-game set in St. Louis. We’d won the first and I desperately craved the second. The finale came down to the ninth inning, the Cardinals up, 1-0. Lee Smith was their closer now, and I thought maybe we could get to him. Gregg Jefferies didn’t come through, though. Nor did Darryl Strawberry. But Kevin McReynolds drew a last-gasp walk, bringing up Howard Johnson. HoJo, we all knew, could send a fastball a long way.

Yet Smith could send a fastball past even the most formidable opponent. In a classic battle of strengths, the pitcher prevailed on a three-two delivery. HoJo went down swinging. With the Pirates having beaten the Phillies, the Mets moved down to second. And I emitted such a yowl that my then-fiancée came running out of the bathroom and into the living room to see if I was all right. We had never lived together through a September pennant race before, so Stephanie didn’t know what I was suffering from.

From Lee Smith, I explained.

Fast-forward from the first year to the last year of the decade. The scene was Shea Stadium, a May 1999 afternoon whose pregame festivities were devoted to the second relief pitcher to breach the 400-save barrier, our very own Johnny from Bensonhurst. Franco had surpassed four-hundred a couple of weeks earlier. The Mets were giving him a Day, much as they had three seasons earlier when he reached 300 (though this time there was no brawl and no ejection of the guest of honor). Gifts and accolades abounded, well-meaning if standard treatment for such an occasion. Then came a surprise. Introduced without advance notice was the first relief pitcher to breach the 400-save barrier, the all-time leader in the category that, for better or worse, redefined how conclusions of contests were interpreted.

It was Lee Smith! Yes, an exclamation point! We at Shea hadn’t collectively thought much about Lee Smith lately except for acknowledging that he had indeed saved more games than any pitcher in baseball history. We had that ingrained in our heads because he was mentioned regularly in relation to Franco’s standing. Smith had the most overall; Franco had the most as a lefty. And now save was recognizing save, so to speak. We were informed that Lee had traveled all night from his home in Louisiana to join Johnny here today. It was such a gosh darn respectful gesture that we couldn’t help but rise and applaud harder for a valiant opponent of yore. (The event ascended another emotional notch when Franco was presented with a motorcycle, less for the bike than who removed his helmet and revealed himself as the presenter after driving it out from the right field bullpen — none other than Tug McGraw.)

The ceremonies ended, Smith went back to Louisiana and 478 stood a while longer as the saves record. That eventually ceased to be the metric’s magic number, but to the Today’s Game gang, Lee’s prestige more than lingered. The close affiliation of several members with a couple of Baines’s teams has been heartily described as committee cronyism in action. Harold didn’t necessarily have a dozen close, personal friends pulling him into the Hall, but he had a few, and eventually they helped add up to the twelve out of sixteen votes required for election. Smith, on the other hand, went 16-for-16. Everybody meeting to decide this round of selection remained suitably in awe of those 478 saves, third-most to this day, trailing only Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman. Hoffman’s already in Cooperstown and Rivera presumably has a non-refundable reservation on a wall near Trevor. Not all of these voters stood in the box against Lee Smith, but they could collectively appreciate the challenge doing so represented.

Conferring what we loosely refer to as immortality is also a challenge. Or so we’re convinced annually. Yet there’s a right fielder who transitioned with aplomb to top-flight designated hitting (deplorable though the position’s existence may be). And there’s a righthander who preserved victories at prodigious rates (debatable though the prevailing statistic may be). With considerably less angst than is attached to every January’s drama, we have two new Hall of Famers. Harold Baines. Lee Smith. Immortal as they need to be.

Don’t begrudge them. Respect them. And, by all means, add to their ranks.