Hemond-Baines roots run deep

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Part of the magic of a baseball autumn is the long, twisting road traveled by the participants, not just over a 162-game season, but the course of their careers.

Orioles general manager Roland Hemond remembers the first time he saw Harold Baines hit, the sense of panic that rushed through him that day, the throng of snickering reporters, the soothing voice of the late Bill Veeck.

The Chicago White Sox had just made Baines the No. 1 pick in the country, and it just so happened the team was in Baltimore. Baines lived on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Why not show him off?

Hemond was Chicago's general manager then, Veeck its maverick owner. They quickly made plans for Baines to take batting practice at Memorial Stadium. But Baines looked abysmal that day, leaving Hemond to face the reporters.

"I had heard that Eddie Mathews had trouble hitting the ball out of the cage, too," said Hemond, who broke into baseball with the Braves' organization in 1951, three years after Mathews signed.

"He'd hit it straight up or straight down, or he'd miss. That's virtually what Harold did. When I was besieged by reporters, I said, 'I remember Eddie Mathews doing the same thing, and he's on his way to the Hall of Fame.'

"I had to dig deep to protect Harold that day," Hemond said with a chuckle. "I called Bill and I said, 'That was a very poor hitting exhibition, I have to tell you that.' Bill said, 'Don't worry, he'll be OK, he's nervous. He hasn't been away from the Eastern Shore much in his life.' "

To Hemond's everlasting relief, Veeck proved a sage. Thirteen years later Baines is a .288 lifetime hitter, enjoying his crowning moment with the Oakland A's. It's difficult imagining him as the scared kid who couldn't hit the ball out of the cage.

Baines, 31, is 3-for-8 with three RBIs as the A's lead Boston 2-0 in the best-of-seven series resuming today (3:18, Ch. 11) at the Oakland Coliseum. He's rejuvenated playing for Tony La Russa, the manager who nurtured him through the White Sox system. Few things in baseball are stronger than the ties that bind.

Hemond left the White Sox after the 1985 season, but he never forgot Baines, a quiet, humble sort who gets lost in the game's cult of personality. Last year, Hemond tried to acquire the designated hitter for the Orioles. This year, La Russa convinced management to bring him to the A's.

To think, it all started that awful day in Baltimore; actually, even before that. Veeck would vacation on the Eastern Shore, and he first spotted Baines in Little League. Hemond said the White Sox sent half a dozen scouts to watch Baines, who was born in Easton. It was worth the effort.

Not that the decision was easy; the '77 draft was unusually deep. The White Sox selected Baines over Bill Gullickson (No. 2), Paul Molitor (No. 3) and Terry Kennedy (No. 6). Baines finished the season with Class A Appleton, and the next year moved to Double A Knoxville.

It was there he met La Russa, who was managing for the first time. La Russa was only 33, but even then it was evident he had a brilliant baseball mind. He led Knoxville to the first-half title of the Southern League. Veeck named him Chicago's first-base coach at midseason.

The next year, La Russa asked to manage Triple A Iowa, and the White Sox obliged. Baines reached Triple A that same season, but again La Russa didn't last the whole year. The White Sox named him manager on Aug. 2, and the rest is history.

Baines joined the White Sox in 1980, La Russa's first full season. At first, he was an undisciplined hitter -- "he'd go to bat four times," Hemond said, "and probably see five pitches." But La Russa brought him along slowly, alternating him with the immortal Wayne Nordhagen in rightfield.

Three years later, the White Sox won a division title. Baines went 2-for-16 as Chicago lost four straight to the Orioles in the playoffs, but Hemond recalls him hitting line drive after line drive, including one that dropped Gary Roenicke to his knees in the final game.

That was the peak. The White Sox fired Hemond in '85, La Russa in '86. Baines became an institution in Chicago, but knee problems turned him into a designated hitter. The White Sox, embarking on a youth movement, decided to trade him last season.

Naturally, Hemond was interested; the Orioles led the AL East into late August, but their offense lacked punch. Baines appeared a perfect fit, but the White Sox wound up trading him to Texas for second baseman Scott Fletcher, outfielder Sammy Sosa and pitcher Wilson Alvarez.

Sosa and Alvarez were top prospects, but from the Orioles' perspective, Fletcher was the key to the deal. The White Sox wanted a second baseman, and the Orioles, who later acquired Keith Moreland, could not meet their demands. "It never got really serious," Hemond said.

Baines batted .290 for Texas with 13 homers and 44 RBIs, but the Rangers decided he'd be worthless by the time his contract expired in 1992. On Aug. 29 they sent him to Oakland for minor-league pitchers Scott Chiamparino and Joe Bitker. The A's acquired Willie McGee from St. Louis the same day.

La Russa, not surprisingly, was ecstatic, and Baines drove in 21 runs in 94 at-bats down the stretch, giving the A's the balance they needed from the left side. In the playoffs he has been just as effective, dropping his first sacrifice bunt since 1984 in Game 1, getting three RBIs in Game 2.

"When I left Texas, I had a down feeling that they thought I couldn't hit anymore," Baines said. "I came here wanting to play a part. I came here to prove a point. Hopefully, I've shown some people I can still play the game of baseball."

Hemond never doubted that -- he calls Baines the "ultimate pro" -- but he can't decide whom to cheer for in either playoff series. Baines and La Russa are good friends, but the Red Sox are the team of his New England youth. Cincinnati GM Bob Quinn is his brother-in-law. But Pittsburgh manager Jim Leyland was his coach in Chicago.

"I'm confused," Hemond said. "I'm rooting for everybody."

It's like that, when careers keep crossing paths.

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