UNCHECKED SWING Baines' hit show continues to run, even if hobbled DH can't

He could have been Billy Williams. That's what Roland Hemond says. Same left-handed swing. Same all-around talent. Williams played 18 seasons. Finished with a .290 career batting average, 2,711 hits, 426 home runs. Made the Hall of Fame.

But Harold Baines isn't Billy Williams. Not after undergoing six knee operations. Not after becoming a designated hitter in 1987. Not after playing most of his career at the old Comiskey Park, where it was 352 feet down the right-field line.


The big park robbed him of home runs. The knees robbed him of his ability to play the outfield, hundreds of at-bats and maybe a chance at the Hall of Fame. Baines' statistics are nearly at that level, and at the age of 35, he remains one of the most dangerous hitters in the game.

Entering this season, only 28 players in major-league history had as many home runs (261) and a career batting average (.288) as high as Baines. Of those, 20 are enshrined in Cooperstown, and Eddie Murray is a lock to join them after he retires.


Baines? He's 136 homers short of 400, 924 hits short of 3,000. Reaching either number likely would result in his induction, but the odds are against him. His knees are in such bad shape, every game is a risk, and every season threatens to be his last.

Yet, Baines asks no sympathy. In fact, he sees himself as fortunate, not the reverse. He's still playing, isn't he? Ask him how his career might have turned out if his knees had stayed strong, and he turns on the question as if it were a hanging curveball.

"It could be the other way around if I had good knees," Baines says. "[The injuries] have made me work harder off the field, made me more disciplined. After the knee operations, I had to change my approach. I had a family to raise. I didn't have any other skills outside of playing baseball."

Knees are cut above

Six arthroscopic surgeries -- four on his right knee, two on his left. Orioles trainer Richie Bancells says Baines' knees "are about as bad as you can get." But since his first operation, at the end of the '86 season, Baines has driven in more than 500 runs.

The other night, he ripped Tom Henke for a pinch-hit, bases-loaded triple, and afterward the veteran Texas reliever said, "He's the best hitter on that team." Orioles first base coach Davey Lopes seconds that opinion, calling Baines "the most feared guy in our lineup."

Hemond, general manager when the White Sox made Baines the first pick of the 1977 draft, only wonders what might have been. He tried to acquire Baines from the White Sox in the summer of '89, and then again from Texas that winter. He finally succeeded in January '93, but in a sense it was too late.

Not for the Orioles -- Baines' .313 average last season was the highest of his 14-year career, and this season he's batting .400 with three homers and nine RBIs. But what if Hemond had succeeded in acquiring Baines for Jeff Ballard, Jose Bautista and a third player in the '89 off-season? What if Baines had played the past four years at cozy Memorial Stadium and Camden Yards?


These are the questions that Hemond asks, the questions that never will be answered. Hemond says he was "real close" to completing the three-for-one trade with Texas in '89. But the Rangers balked with Ballard coming off elbow surgery -- the right move, as it turned out, for Ballard's career was never the same.

Baines can't complain -- he wound up playing for two division champions in Oakland, and his statistics didn't exactly suffer. He hasn't had a 500-at-bat season since 1989, yet he has built career numbers nearly identical to Cal Ripken's and comparable to Paul Molitor's at the same stage.

Ripken, a shortstop with the second-longest consecutive-games streak in major-league history, is a certain Hall of Famer. Molitor, nearly three years older than Baines, is closing in on 3,000 hits. That probably would be enough to send him to Cooperstown, even though he has spent the past four seasons as a first baseman and DH.

Baines is simply one of the most productive hitters of his era. He almost always hits for a higher average with men on base than with the bases empty. The past nine seasons, he has batted .301 with men in scoring position. And since 1980, Murray, Andre Dawson and Dave Winfield are the only players with more RBIs.

Earlier in his career, he also was a solid outfielder with decent speed and a strong arm. "He probably never would have been traded from the White Sox if he didn't have knee problems," Hemond said. "The way he hits, he still would be a regular. He would have accumulated a lot of productive years."

Unsung hero


Instead, he became a DH who occasionally needs days off. Baines helped carry the Orioles in the pennant race last season, hitting 15 of his 20 homers after the All-Star break, batting .359 after Aug. 18. But he's so quiet, Texas GM Tom Grieve calls him "probably one of the better players no one ever hears about."

To his teammates, he's anything but unknown. "He's the one guy who, when I'm taking ground balls at first base, I get behind the screen," Brady Anderson says. "[David] Segui and I used to laugh and say, 'Uh-oh, here comes Bowling Ball Man.' He hits the ball, it doesn't come off the bat the same way. It feels like a big, heavy steel ball."

No work, no play

Yet, Baines must work harder than most players simply to get on the field. He often was the first player to arrive in spring training, reporting with the trainers at 7:30 a.m. "He's got to work, and he knows it," Bancells says. "If he didn't do the job taking care of it that he does, he probably wouldn't be playing."

Six knee operations in seven years translates into three days a week of rehabilitation every winter -- "that's the hardest part," Baines says. He lifts weights every other day during the season to keep his quadriceps strong. Bancells recently discouraged him from working out every day, urging Baines to allow himself recovery time.

Watching him at the plate, you'd never know he had knee problems; Baines plants his feet, takes his big leg kick, unleashes his powerful swing. As Orioles manager Johnny Oates says: "He can hit better on one leg than a lot of guys hit on two."


Last season, he was limited to 416 at-bats, the second-lowest total of his career. Still, he increased his batting average by 60 points, hit 20 homers, drove in 78 runs. Physically, this season has been better than last. Baines received only one injection in spring training, and missed only two days.

"I'm very thankful," he says. "This is my 15th year. The last seven years, I've been a DH. If I wasn't able to hit, I'd be out of the game. I'm not worried about the knee operations I've had. I'm still happy to make the money I'm making, and contribute to the game I love."

He's not Billy Williams.

He's Harold Baines.