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Harold Baines, who let his performance do the talking for much of his career, gets the last word

Harold Baines, who let his performance do the talking for much of his career, gets the last word
Eastern Shore native Harold Baines played 22 seasons in the big leagues, including seven with the Orioles. (MARK DUNCAN / AP)

Former Oriole Harold Baines figures to have some mixed feelings about Sunday’s Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony.

Of course, he’s thrilled to be gaining this full measure of baseball immortality and having the baseball world celebrate the 22-year career he spent with five teams, most notably the Chicago White Sox and O’s.

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Having to talk about it in front of a crowd that could number 80,000 at the Clark Sports Complex might be another story, but Baines didn’t seem worried when he met with the media for his pre-induction news conference on Saturday. He said he’s looking forward to all the speeches and is comfortable with his own.

"Everybody has their own emotions, their own stories,'' he said. “I’m curious about other peoples’ stories. Mine is about community and family.”

Baines has never been a big talker. He was a shy kid growing up on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and he has been a man of few words throughout all those years as one of his sport’s greatest designated hitters.

Former Oriole Harold Baines was inducted into the Orioles Hall of Fame.
Former Oriole Harold Baines was inducted into the Orioles Hall of Fame. (Baltimore Sun photo by Lloyd Fox)

“He was a very modest, quiet, humble kid, just like he is today,’’ said lifelong friend Mark Wood. “That’s just his demeanor. He was never outspoken. It’s just the way he is. He’s the same today as he was when he was 5-years-old.”

Wood traveled to upstate New York from St. Michaels with his son to see Baines receive a level of recognition that surprised no one who watched his talent take root on the ballfields of Talbot County.

“Everybody in town knew that he had the potential to become one of the greatest players in baseball,’’ Wood said, “and as he grew it just evolved into what everybody thought. He’s gotten to be the local hometown hero.”

"Only as a 15-year-old,'' Baines said Saturday. “That’s when the scouts started coming around. You always have somebody good in a small town like I grew up in, but when you get to the other competition, it’s different. When I played American Legion, it was tougher, but in my town I was probably one of the better players. But you’ve got to get better as you go along and, fortunately, I got drafted fairly young and was able to hone my craft.”

The local legend, of course, is that White Sox owner Bill Veeck — who lived on the Eastern Shore — saw Baines play as a 12-year-old or, at least, Veeck claimed he did when the White Sox made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 1977 June draft.

That pick was made by Sox general manager Roland Hemond, who 16 years later would bring Baines home to Maryland for the first of three stints with the Orioles late in his career. Making him the top draft pick raised some eyebrows at the time, just as his selection by the Hall of Fame’s “Today’s Era” committee did last December.

Baines was a surprising choice, considering that he got scant support from the voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America during the five years he was eligible for election. His worthiness was questioned both on social media and in the mainstream press, but he handled that in his low-key style, standing up for the designated hitters who only recently have gotten their due in Cooperstown.

“I guess we’re just half a player,’’ Baines said during a conference call soon after his selection was announced at the Winter Meetings in December.

His friend Mark Woods doesn’t think it should even have been an issue. Baines hit 384 home runs, had 1,628 RBIs and amassed 2,866 hits. He also had a .324 batting average in 31 postseason games and was still revered enough as a pure hitter to twice be acquired by playoff teams (1999 and 2000) at midseason after he turned 40.

“If he hadn’t been hurt,” Woods said, “his numbers would have been off the charts.”

Harold Baines displays the plaque given to him by the White Sox at his uniform number retirement ceremony Sunday August 20, 1989.
Harold Baines displays the plaque given to him by the White Sox at his uniform number retirement ceremony Sunday August 20, 1989. (CHARLES CHERNEY / XX)

The case can be made that this year’s induction ceremony will bring an end to the positional bias that once kept designated hitters and bullpen closers from getting fair representation in the Hall of Fame.

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Baines and Edgar Martinez will be the third and fourth players to be inducted who played more games at designated hitter than any other position, joining Paul Molitor and Frank Thomas. Mariano Rivera and Lee Smith will be the seventh and eighth relievers to enter the Hall – six of those gaining induction over the last 15 years.

The case can be made that the evolution of specialized relief roles delayed the recognition of relievers, but the recognition of designated hitters clearly has been hamperd by the notion that the role has been a haven for players who would not have had lengthy careers if they had been forced to play in the field.

Baines was a full-time outfielder for the first seven seasons in the major leagues, but was forced by a series of knee problems into a full-time DH role. It’s only fair to point out that he still played nearly 1,100 games in the outfield during his career, far more Thomas or Martinez.

It is the subjective nature of the Hall of Fame selection processes that allows for debate over the suitability of those former players who are not obvious consensus candidates, so Baines is right ignore his skeptics and fully embrace his status as one of baseball’s all-time greats.

He said soon after his pending induction was announced that he wasn’t worried about any of that and he was very proud of his career.

He has every right to be.

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