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BAINES' HAPPY LANDING St. Michaels shares joy as its favorite son comes home for good

ST. MICHAELS — In the window of the Carpenter Street Saloon is a makeshift sign that echoes the collective sentiment of both patrons and passers-by. Painted on pink poster board is a large No. 3 and a simple congratulatory message for a small town's favorite son.

It might seem cryptic to the out-of-staters who come to sample the seafood and the serenity of this picturesque Eastern Shore town, but, to the locals, there is no explanation necessary. Harold Baines has come home for good.

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Not that he ever really left. Baines grew up in St. Michaels. The athletic exploits of his youth are the stuff of local legend. He has kept his home here throughout a 13-year major-league career, but the townspeople shared his delight when the Orioles recently made it possible for him to live in it year-round.

He is just Harold here, and you can go door-to-door all day and never find anyone with anything bad to say about him. The old-timers remember him tearing up the local ball fields at 12. The youngsters know him from the newspaper headlines and the various events he attends to benefit youth charities. He has done so much that the city fathers voted a year ago to make Jan. 9 Harold Baines Day.

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"Harold is just kind of our hometown sports legend," said Dick Maxwell, the bartender at the Carpenter Street Saloon, "and we're lucky to have someone like him. He's a non-smoker and a non-drug user. He's a family man and a model citizen. That's the kind of person we want our kids to look up to."

The sign in the window left room to wonder if Carpenter Street was thewonder if Carpenter Street was the official Harold Baines hangout, but Maxwell cleared up any misconception.

"You're not going to see Harold in here very often," he said. "I don't think Harold even drinks."

Shared pride

Baines, 33, seems as proud of his hometown as it is of him. He is quiet by nature, but he led a brief tour yesterday of the area in which he grew up. It started at St. Michaels High, where he was a three-sport star in baseball, basketball and soccer, and included stops at the Maritime Museum and the town dock.

"This is the kind of place where you can have peace of mind," he said.

It is an idyllic setting, though economic forces have turned it into much more of a travel destination in recent years. The beautiful waterfront and the quaint 19th century charm of the place have lured outsiders for decades, but rising real estate prices steadily have increased the emphasis on tourism.

Nevertheless, Baines -- who could afford to live anywhere -- cannot imagine living someplace else. He married his high school sweetheart. He has a son and three daughters (ages 2 through 8) in school here. His parents still live in town. His younger brother, Curtis, is a high school sophomore who is trying to follow in some very large footsteps, playing baseball and basketball at St. Michaels High.

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"I could have moved to Chicago or Oakland," he said, "but I didn't want to take my kids out of an environment that they enjoy."

He has had to sacrifice a lot of time at home to give his children the stability of a small-town upbringing, but not anymore -- not since the Orioles traded two minor-league players to the Oakland Athletics to acquire Baines two weeks ago. Finally, after 16 years in professional baseball, he can have the best of both worlds.

Scouted by Veeck

Small-town success stories often are equal parts fact and local legend, but the most popular boyhood story about Baines only sounds like a tall tale. Baseball mogul Bill Veeck really did begin ,, scouting Baines while he was in Little League.

It already was apparent that there was something special about the kid with the sweet, left-handed swing who played for the team sponsored by the Rotary Club. Veeck, who lived in nearby Oxford, had a friend keep tabs on Baines until he was eligible for the amateur draft, then made him the first player chosen in June 1977.

"I recommended him to Bill," said Bob Boinski, a local house painter who was a longtime friend of the late baseball showman. "In a small area like this, you get to see all the local kids. Everybody was talking about him. Everybody had heard of him. You could already see that he had all the tools. I guess Bill's smiling now that Roland [Hemond, Orioles general manager] got him back."

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Baines was, by all accounts, a natural. He moved into high school and began attracting crowds of baseball scouts during his sophomore year. He also continued to build on his reputation as the finest all-around athlete in the area, excelling on the basketball court and leading St. Michaels into the state soccer final as a senior.

"He could do anything," said Denver Leach, who coached Baines in baseball and soccer and who now serves as athletic director at St. Michaels High. "He could have been a good point guard. Soccer? He played only his senior year, and he scored 15 goals and took us to the state final. He could have been on anybody's team. It wouldn't have mattered if it was pool or pingpong. He would have been good at it."

That may have been true, but only one sport really mattered. Baines knew early on that baseball was the sport that would make or break his athletic future.

"Everybody knew it," said Linwood Baines, who is a year older than his famous brother. "He could have been a pro basketball player. He was that good. But everyone knew it would be baseball. From Little League on, it was like destiny."

The baseball field at St. Michaels High didn't have fences in those days. Right field ended at a drainage ditch that dropped out of sight about 390 feet from home plate. Behind it, another 100 feet or so up a slight incline, was an asphalt running track. All this is prelude to another tall tale that just happens to be true.

"There was one day when a bunch of scouts came to see Harold," Leach said. "But the other team was so afraid of him that they intentionally walked him three times. The scouts had come a long way to see him, so they asked him to take batting practice after the game. He took eight or 10 swings and hit three balls over the ditch. A couple of them bounced up onto the track. They watched for a couple of minutes and then said, 'That's fine. We've seen enough.' "

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It's in the genes

Bunyanesque home runs apparently run in the family. Linwood Baines Sr. never got a chance to try out for a major-league team, but he also had quite a reputation around the Eastern Shore.

"He could hit it a mile," said Linwood Jr. "He had a couple of teams following him when he was coming up, but, unfortunately, I came along, and he had to go to work."

If that was a source of frustration for the elder Baines, he channeled it into the scholastic and athletic achievement of his children. When he wasn't working 10 hours a day as a bricklayer, he was carting Harold and Linwood Jr. to American Legion games or making sure they took care of business at school.

Harold says his father was his only boyhood hero, but that had nothing to do with the stories he heard about his father's exploits in semipro baseball. It had more to do with the way Linwood Sr. went about the business of providing for his family.

"It was not from a baseball aspect," Baines said. "It was just from the way he raised his kids. You had to go to school and do your work. But he didn't have time to do a lot of the things a father normally does with his kids. He was always working."

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What Linwood Sr. remembers most about his son was his unquenchable desire to play.

"Harold's glove was bigger than he was, but he'd be dragging me down to the diamond," he said.

That work ethic still is reflected in Baines' approach to baseball. He has made a career out of speaking softly and carrying a big stick. In that respect, he'll fit right into an Orioles lineup that has another soft-spoken superstar at shortstop.

Committed to youth

The curio shops that line Talbot Street may cater to the tourists who come here each spring to experience the town's ambience, but Baines spends much of his spare time catering to the needs of local youngsters.

"I can tell you all you need to know about Harold Baines," says Bill McLeod, the director of the Bay Hundred Youth Task Force. "Four years ago, he put $1,000 in my hand and told me to start a scholarship fund. Since then, we've put 14 kids in school and we've got $25,000 in St. Michaels Bank."

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The Harold Baines Scholarship Fund has grown quickly, thanks to further donations from Baines, a charity golf tournament and the annual banquet he puts on at St. Michaels High. He is visible at a variety of other Eastern Shore charity events, but it is the scholarship fund that hits closest to home.

"We've set a goal," said McLeod. "We want to get to the point where we can make sure that no kid from Oak Creek to Tilghman Island will ever say he couldn't go to school because he didn't have the money."

Still the same

Baines is so quiet that he comes off as aloof at times, but his friends and neighbors know better. He always has kept to himself, but he never has given anyone in St. Michaels cause to do anything but like and respect him.

"Harold has been the same since the time he was a kid," said Walter Thomas, a former high school teammate who now works behind the counter at the High's Market. "He's not like a lot of guys who make a lot of money and get a big head. Personally, I admire him."

That is something of a consensus. It you're looking for someone to say a negative word about Harold Baines, you've come to the wrong place.

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"You won't find anyone," said Thomas, "and if you did, it would NTC be because they are jealous of him. But, no, I don't believe you would find anyone at all."

Winter Carnival

Mike Mussina, Arthur Rhodes, Johnny Oates and Elrod Hendricks are among the Orioles scheduled to appear at the team's annual Winter Carnival tomorrow on the club level at Camden Yards.

There will be player clinics, memorabilia, baseball card dealers, souvenirs, a speed pitch machine, a media round-table and a session called "speaking of baseball" with Orioles front-office personnel.

The event runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and tickets are $6 foadults and $3 for youngsters 12 and under. For ticket information, call (410) 481-SEAT. For more information about the carnival, call (410) 685-9800.


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