A baseball Hall of Fame committee that nobody was paying any attention to decided yesterday to elect Harold Baines and Lee Smith to the Hall. It probably wasn’t one of the 10 most dysfunctional things about the Hall of Fame right now, as the facts and rumors of the steroids era reverberate through the cold halls of the mental mausoleums where the sportswriters keep their dead ideas of Who Belongs. But it was surprising.
In Baines and Smith, the Today’s Game Era Committee might have been living up to the implied duties of its name, picking players whose roles—designated hitter and closer, respectively—were relatively recent innovations that have tended not to fit the stringent traditional requirements of the hall. A batter who never played the field at all? A pitcher who only got three outs at a time? Honus Wagner never saw the like.
There are, however, extraordinary players at both positions on the regular Hall of Fame ballot: Edgar Martinez and Mariano Rivera, the most accomplished DH and the most successful closer of all time. The Hall would be incomplete without them.
Instead, or in the meantime, they’ve got Smith and Baines. It’s hard to have any strong feelings about Lee Smith. The modern closer exists to rack up one statistic, the save, an achievement that is mostly defined by showing up. More often than not, a decent major-league pitcher, starting an inning with a lead of three or fewer runs, can get three outs without giving up the lead. Lee Smith did it a lot, enough to lead the league multiple times, and he did it at a moment in baseball history that allowed him to end up, for a while, as the all-time saves leader. Other, better, pitchers have surpassed him and will keep on surpassing him, until eventually people come up with a more meaningful relief-pitching stat than saves and relievers stop getting rewarded for piling them up. But in his time, Smith had the biggest pile.
Harold Baines, though… Harold Baines was good. He was very good. This is an insult, in the Hall of Fame discourse: It ain’t the Hall of Very Good, people say, and rightly, on those terms. But those were never Harold Baines’ own terms.
Until his sudden and surprising elevation, Baines had always seemed like a negative monument to the Hall. There was nothing wrong with him at all. He was a steady, dangerous hitter—a “professional hitter,” the stock phrase was—with a suave left-handed swing. He started as a right fielder, wrecked his knees in a time when wrecking your knees meant your knees stayed wrecked, switched to being a full-time DH, and kept playing and hitting. He hit .271 with 25 homers and 105 RBI at age 23, and hit .312 with 25 homers and 103 RBI at age 40. He slugged .469 against right-handed starters and .449 against left-handed starters. He hit better from the sixth inning on than in the beginning of the game, and better with runners in scoring position and two outs than otherwise. Against Hall of Fame closer Lee Smith, he went 2 for 5 with 2 walks. If Harold Baines was up to bat for your team (he was with the Baltimore Orioles three times, for a total of seven seasons), you never wished somebody else were there instead.
Yet the remarkable thing about Baines, and about baseball, was that nobody seriously believed this added up to a Hall of Fame career. He was a pure hitter, and he played 22 years, and he ended up with 2,866 hits and 384 home runs—a lesson in how far away and hard to reach the 3,000-hit and 500-homer marks truly are. It was a satisfying, often heroic and joyous career, a triumph by any standard except that of the Hall.
Now, though, thanks to the vote of the committee, that’s the standard he has to be judged by. “Harold Baines’s entry lowers the bar for baseball’s Hall of Fame,” the Washington Post wrote for a headline. Sports Illustrated went with “Harold Baines’s Stunning Hall of Fame Election Is an Embarrassment.” Everyone’s got another funny name from the stack of second-rate players who also lasted a long time. Why not Travis Hafner? Jesse Barfield? Two days ago, the last word on Harold Baines would have been that he had no real shortcomings. Today, he’s been reduced to nothing but shortcomings. If the committee wanted to respect what he accomplished, it should have left him alone.