COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Though clearly struck by the moment, Harold Baines kept his emotions in check just as he always has — even on a day he’ll never forget.
“I hold it inside. It’ll come out,” Baines said Tuesday, sitting just a few feet from where his bronze plaque will hang in the Baseball Hall of Fame come late July. “It’s very special, but it still hasn’t really sunk in.
“I’m very honored, very grateful for what’s going to be happening in the next few months.”
Baines and reliever Lee Smith were selected for enshrinement in the Hall of Fame at the baseball winter meetings in Las Vegas in December by a 16-member veterans committee. It took 12 votes by the panel to gain election — Smith was unanimous, while Baines received the requisite 12, one more than Lou Piniella. Mariano Rivera, Edgar Martinez, the late Roy Halladay, and Mike Mussina were selected last week by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. All six will be inducted July 21.
Baines started his career as an outfielder before an injury late in the 1986 season forced him into the role of a designated hitter and had a solid 22-year career, retiring after the 2001 season. He finished with 1,628 RBIs, 384 home runs and 2,866 hits, and was a six-time All-Star. But he never received more than 6.1 percent of the vote by the writers in five appearances on the ballot, well below the 75 percent threshold for induction.
In the key WAR stat, as compiled by baseballreference.com, Baines’ lifetime total was tied for 545th.
Baines also never finished higher than ninth in an MVP vote, never was among the top five hitters in the annual batting race, never had 200 hits, never hit 30 homers in a season, and was hurt by the bias of purists against the DH position. He will join Martinez and Frank Thomas as the only players in the Hall who spent more than half their games as a DH.
On this day none of that mattered. Nor did the fact that the panel appointed by the Hall board that voted him in included longtime Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, his biggest supporter, and Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa, the first skipper Baines played for when he broke in as a rookie with the White Sox in 1980.
“There’s always a chance,” said Baines, who was accompanied by his wife, Marla, on a tour of the Hall of Fame to prepare for induction day. “I don’t worry about things I can’t control. When stuff is out of your hands, you really don’t step back and dwell on it. I’m just fortunate that the modern-day veterans committee thought it was worth honoring me.”
“I’ve been blessed with this honor and I’m going to try to uphold it as best I can,” he said.
Baines, selected by the White Sox as the top pick in the 1977 amateur draft out of St. Michael’s High School in Easton, Maryland, played for five major league teams but spent nearly all of his first 10 seasons with the White Sox and currently serves as a team ambassador in their community relations department.
Despite doubts about his Hall of Fame credentials, Baines, a dependable left-handed hitter with a smooth swing, did finish with five more RBIs than first-ballot Hall of Famer Chipper Jones (in 824 more at-bats) and lost more than 120 games to two work stoppages that deprived him of an opportunity to reach 3,000 hits, one of the benchmarks for selection to the Hall of Fame.
“That’s part of the game,” Baines, soon to be 60, said. “I’m thankful that I played for 22 years. The work stoppage has made it better for the guys that are playing now. So if I had to be a part of that, then I’m all for it.”