Harold Baines is having another great year and -- if he wants it -- the last laugh. The Orioles couldn't wait to get rid of him, then couldn't find anyone to replace him until the team was in deep trouble in late July.
Funny how things turn out. Baines returned to Baltimore this week, just days after Eddie Murray's 500th home run made everyone forget that the Orioles spent the first half of the season trying to find someone to do the job that Baines has been doing for the Chicago White Sox all season.
After last night's game in the crucial wild-card showdown between the Orioles and White Sox, he is hitting .308 with 21 home runs and 90 RBIs, numbers that some thought he had left behind in the 1980s. Numbers that would have solidified the Orioles' lineup when the club was floundering in May and June, but no one could have known that when the decision was made to pursue Paul Molitor last winter.
"I've got nothing against the Orioles," Baines said yesterday, "but the White Sox were the only team that made me a real offer."
Maybe it all turned out the way it was supposed to. Murray came back to Baltimore. Molitor went home to the Twin Cities. Baines went back to Chicago. Which proves, if nothing else, that Thomas Wolfe didn't have a clue.
Baines would have been at home either way. He grew up on the Eastern Shore, but his baseball roots were in the Windy City, where he was so productive during the first half of his career that the White Sox retired his jersey after trading him to the Texas Rangers. They unretired it this year and it fit perfectly.
"Harold has been outstanding," said manager Terry Bevington. "I couldn't tell you exactly when we decided we wanted Harold back, but I can tell you that I was very excited when I heard we got him back. We've probably wanted him back since he left. That might have started eight years ago. Harold was always welcome in Chicago."
The Orioles didn't have any major complaints. Baines was productive in each of his three seasons in Baltimore, though never like this year. The Orioles' front office was concerned about his lack of speed and ailing knees, but he has felt so good that he even stole a few bases earlier this season.
"I think I can honestly say that 90 percent of the time I've gone out there without any aches and pains," Baines said. "Nothing against the Orioles, but I think I have the best trainer in the league [Herm Schneider]. He's willing to experiment with different things, to do whatever it takes to put you on the field."
He also has a manager who is willing to let him bat against most left-handed pitchers, something he did not do a lot of in Baltimore. Bevington picks his spots to rest Baines against certain lefties, but figures to get him about 500 at-bats this year. If so, it would be the first time Baines has had that many since 1989.
"He's hitting over .300 with 21 homers and 90 RBIs, and he's gotten a lot of big hits and game-winning home runs," Bevington said. "I think he's hitting over .300 against left-handers. He's just a very good hitter, and a great guy to have on your team."
The White Sox already have decided to bring him back next year. General manager Ron Schueler said recently that one of the first things he will do this winter is get Baines under contract for 1997. Baines, whose career appeared to be winding down when he arrived in Baltimore, said yesterday that he is looking forward to at least one more season . . . if the White Sox want him back.
"I would like to be back," he said yesterday. "I guess it depends on how the numbers fall."
Baines seldom shows any emotion, but he clearly appears to be enjoying his physical renaissance, as well as the opportunity to play a significant role on a playoff contender for the first time since 1992, when he went to the playoffs with the Oakland Athletics.
The Sox arrived in Baltimore on an 8-2 roll, but must continue to assert themselves if they are to capture the wild-card berth. The Orioles still have a chance to overtake the New York Yankees in the AL East, but the White Sox no longer have any real shot at winning their division.
The new playoff format may have traditionalists rolling their eyes, but it suddenly is very popular in Chicago, where the White Sox just might have enough pitching to turn a wild-card berth into a trip to the World Series.
"I think everybody was skeptical about it [the wild-card format], because they didn't know what was going to happen," Baines said. "I'm sure some people are still skeptical, but it gives us another chance with two weeks left in the season."
A look at how the Orioles' designated hitters compare with those of the White Sox, who primarily have used former Oriole Harold Baines:
Team/Player .. .. .. Avg. .. HR .. RBI
Orioles-x . .. .. .. .247 .. 17 ... 76
White Sox-y .. .. .. .310 .. 23 .. 109
Baines . .. .. .. .. .308 .. 21 ... 90
x -- 12 players used
y -- 4 players used
Pub Date: 9/11/96