On most matters personal and professional, Harold Baines keeps his own counsel. Among the topics he chooses to stiff-arm is whether five years after announcing his retirement he should receive a call from the secretary of the Baseball Writers Association of American notifying of his election to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Baines, 41, says he is too busy playing the game to be distracted by future events that will ultimately fall beyond his control.
But even if Baines refuses to stir the issue, his distinguished 20-year career promises a delicious debate that not only will decide his presence in the Hall, but also the acceptance of a role long treated as a sideshow within a game hellbent on creating offense through more traditional means such as juiced balls, incompetent pitching and madcap expansion.
Baines offers only this: 375 career home runs, 1,589 RBIs and a .291 average. They are numbers that define greatness but in this case provoke debate.
Possibly in the final year of his career, Baines needs 25 home runs and 200 hits to reach 400 home runs and 3,000 hits -- numbers recognized as an automatic pass. He likely will fall tantalizingly close, leaving 10-year members of the BBWAA to stew for five years over several salient questions.
Did he dominate his era?
His body of works suggests yes. Baines collected hit No. 2,800 last week and entered the weekend 11 RBIs short of 1,600 and 63 short of Tony Perez, who gained induction earlier this year with the distinction of having more RBIs than any other player not enshrined.
Baines already has reached a hits threshold that has ensured induction. Though 3,000 hits is considered a guarantee of induction, 2,800 hits has served as a valid milepost. Andre Dawson retired after the 1996 season with 2,774 hits, 438 home runs and bad knees, making his candidacy a fair barometer for Baines. Dawson earned an MVP Award with a last-place Chicago Cubs team and was long considered among the game's most intimidating outfield arms. Though Baines was considered an above-average outfielder before arthritic knees made him a glove-optional player, he never enjoyed the recognition accorded Dawson in Chicago, never won an MVP award and is remembered most for his inability to play defense.
Dawson hit 30 home runs three times during a 21-year career, including 49 with 137 RBIs during his 1987 MVP season.
Baines has never reached 30 home runs in a season -- only Hall of Famer Al Kaline has more home runs (399) than Baines without a 30-homer year. Remarkably, Baines' 25 home runs last season were his most since 1984.
Dominant? Much the same constituency that will decide his Hall of Fame candidacy also found Baines worthy to receive votes for Most Valuable Player in four seasons, 1982 to '85. During that span, Baines hit 96 home runs with 411 RBIs -- an average of 24 home runs and 103 RBIs. To modern-day rotisserie-heads, those numbers translate to a No. 6 hitter on a World Series team.
Therein lies much of the intrigue surrounding Baines' eligibility. How is dominance defined during an era when 40 home runs are considered almost nickel-bag and Albert Belle's 117 RBIs last season ranked only 20th in the majors?
Does a designated hitter deserve induction?
How ironic that one of the game's least controversial figures will become the centerpiece for one of the hottest induction debates of the past 20 years.
No player defined as a designated hitter has ever gained induction. But then again, no one has ever personified the role as has Baines.
Baines owns the record for most games, home runs, hits and RBIs by a designated hitter. The players he passed for those records -- Hal McRae and Don Baylor -- are not Hall of Fame players. McRae had one monster season (27 homers, 133 RBIs in 1982) before averaging nine home runs and 58 RBIs in his last four seasons. Baylor produced 2,135 hits in 2,292 games -- barely half of them as designated hitter. Like McRae, Baylor enjoyed one 100-RBI season that earned him the 1979 AL MVP, making him the only designated hitter to win the award.
Thus, the fact that no designated hitter has ever been enshrined is specious. None has ever presented a more compelling case.
Entering this weekend, Baines has played 1,565 games as a designated hitter. He has done for the role what Bruce Sutter and Rollie Fingers did for closers. (Fingers is inducted with 341 saves; Sutter, who defined the role, is not, despite 300 saves. More controversy.)
Just as there is reluctance to induct closers by many within the BBWAA, there is a similar reluctance to open the door to a position created in 1973 that commissioner Bud Selig now advocates abolishing. "I think those who vote need to recognize the reality of the designated hitter as part of the game," says Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer. "Purists may not like it, but it's been part of the American League for almost three decades. It should be accepted as such."
Does character count?
Baines has been a model citizen during his career. Embarrassed by the topic, he deflected questions about the Hall last week, saying only, "I'm just worried about getting hits now."
But in a perverse way, Baines' low visibility may hurt him within an ego-inflated, "SportsCenter"-hyped, Rodman-driven era.
Like two-time Most Valuable Player Dale Murphy, another Hall fence-sitter, Baines never bathed in the limelight of a major market's favored franchise or a world championship team.
Like Murphy, he will not enjoy a bloc of media advocacy (Phil Rizzuto), seek to politicize the issue (see Orlando Cepeda, Perez, et al.) or use a broadcast booth as a bully pulpit. Instead, he will retire to St. Michaels, play golf and let others debate his candidacy.