New Hall of Fame Inductees-One makes Sense, the Other Raises Eyebrows

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Hi all. Here’s how I see baseball on this Tuesday, December 11. Two days ago, when word of the newest Hall of Fame inductees came out, for personal reasons I felt unable to write what I was thinking. I hope to do so now. One inductee, Lee Smith makes all the sense in the world and should have been put in years ago. He was one of the earliest closers, a position which has now become specialized. The other name, Harold Baines left me scratching my head. At first, all I saw on Twitter was the last name “Baines” and for reasons I won’t go into I was too flustered to remember a first name of a player named Baines. Even when I remembered Harold’s first name, I was left trying to think why his name should join those of Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Williams, Banks, Aaron, Mantle and Reggie Jackson.
Buck O’Neil saw what the teenage Lee Smith could do. On his say-so the Cubs took Smith in round 2 of the 1975 draft. He reached the majors as a September call-up in 1980 but wasn’t going anywhere until 1982 when Ferguson Jenkins returned to the Cubs after 8 years away from the friendly confines. He taught Smith the forkball and slider and the imposing righty never looked back. As a spot starter he hit his first and only home run off Phil Niekro who would later be elected to the Hall of Fame for his prowess with the knuckleball. After the home run Smith only picked up two singles in his career which lasted through 1997. He started picking up saves in 1982 and was the regular closer by the next season. 1984 was his first taste of postseason play and with a nod to Mr. Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” In game 2 Smith retired to Padres to pick up the save, putting the Cubs ahead 2 games to None in what was then a best 3 out of 5 NLCS. By the way, this was the last year the LCS was played in a 3 out of 5 format. The Padres won game 3. Smith entered game 4 with the score tied. He got the first 4 men he saw, then gave up a single to future Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn. That in itself would have been understood since Gwynn picked up over 3,000 hits. With Gwynn on first, one out in the home 9th, The next hitter Steve Garvey slammed a home run to end the game and tie the series at 2 games apiece. The Cubs lost the next day, and by the time they saw the playoffs again, Smith had gone. He had been an All-Star in 1983 and was chosen a second time in 1987. This time the game went scoreless through 9 innings. Smith pitched the 10th, 11th and 12th, not giving any quarter and striking out 4 men. The NL scored the game’s only two runs in the 13th making a winner out of Smith.
At this point in baseball history, 30 saves was about the best a closer could get. Dan Quisenberry of the Royals picked up 30 a year 4 years running, starting in 1983. Starting a year later, Smith was the second man to save 30 games in 4 straight seasons. By the end of the decade Jeff Reardon would collect as many saves 5 years running.
In December, 1987 Smith was sent to Boston for Al Nipper and Calvin Schiraldi, neither of whom did much for the Cubs while Smith went to the ALCS with the Red Sox. Led by the notorious and dishonored Bash Brothers, Oakland tagged Smith in both games 2 and 4 of a series they swept. Smith would never return to the postseason.
Along With Jeff Reardon, an argument could be made for Smith as the best reliever of the 1980’s. The Red Sox signed Reardon before the 1990 season began, and by May, Smith was off to St. Louis where he spent parts of 4 seasons. By the time Reardon retired, Smith had passed him with 358 saves. He would collect 478 when all was said and done.
The last few years of his career, Smith started bouncing from team to team which may have delayed his selection to Cooperstown until now. Smith’s vagabond years began late in 1993 when the Cardinals sent him to the Yankees. He left with the Cardinals’ team record for saves, a record that wouldn’t break for over a decade. Rather than sticking with the Yankees where patience might have gotten him a World Series ring, he was off to Baltimore for the 1994 season. That year and the early part of 1995 were marred by the catastrophic strike. When it ended at last, Smith pitched 1995 for the Angels, then with the Reds in 1996. His last season was truly forgettable, pitching in 1997 for the Expos.
His baseball jobs have been many and varied since the cheering stopped. He has been a roving minor league pitching instructor for the Giants. He twice served as pitching coach for the South African side in the World Baseball Classic. In 2007 he was a coach in the European Baseball Academy for MLB International which took him to Italy.
Smith is the 7th man to reach Cooperstown based on his work as a relief pitcher. Mariano Rivera will be the 8th when his time comes up. Smith’s predecessors were Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers, Dennis Eckersley, Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter (Pronounced “Suitor” and Trevor Hoffman. Sutter and Hoffman have joined the Hall with fewer innings under their belts than Smith. Fingers and Eckersley had easier roads since they each won an MVP. Sutter scored a Cy Young award, a near-impossibility for a closer. Smith was never in consideration for either of those awards. 2012 was the only year he gained 50% of the votes needed from the BBWAA, still 25% shy of election. His election now comes from the “Today’s Game Committee.”
Harold Baines, who the Today’s Game Committee also voted in would never get my vote if I had one. Just for starters he was a career DH,which would prohibit me from putting any man into the Hall of Fame. The DH position was badly needed when the American League brought it in. Their games in particular were dull and poorly attended. As the quality of play improved, the DH should have been removed but the players’ union would never allow that. So, along with Manny Ramirez, Edgar Martinez and David Ortiz, you have players like Baines who were professional hitters as opposed to being complete ballplayers. In the cases of Baines and Martinez, injuries limited them in the field. In the case of Ortiz it was old age, and if you want to know why Manny Ramirez mostly played DH, see if any of his fielding foibles are available on youtube.
Baines in fact collected almost 2900 hits which shocked me when I found that out. Also to his credit, he performed his best in the playoffs, hitting .324 over 31 postseason games. Other than hits, his other numbers are not HOF quality, especially a modest 384 home runs over more than two decades including the steroid era which began in 1996. Other than his first decade which he spent with the White Sox, he was a vagabond playing with nobody for longer than 3 years. He spent 3 separate hitches with both the White Sox and Orioles.
Baines was taken by the White Sox with the first pick of the 1977 draft. Team owner Bill Veeck got Baines at a bargain price, $32,000 which was and remains an alltime low for an overall first pick. Less than 3 years after graduating high school Baines was in the starting lineup for the White Sox in 1980. One of his bats reached Cooperstown before he did. It’s the bbat he used to win a 25-inning game over the Brewers with a home run in 1984.
Baines’ only taste of postseason in the 1980’s was in 1983 when the Orioles beat the White Sox to reach the World Series. Baines first was traded to Texas in 1989, then on to Oakland in 1990. This time his team got to the World Series where they were swept by the Reds. His 1992 Oakland team lost in the ALCS to the Blue Jays. He spent 3 seasons with the Orioles but left before 1996, the year the O’s reached the ALCS against the Yankees. They got Baines back in a 1997 trade. This time they lost in the ALCS to the Indians. Baines didn’t play in the postseason again but won a World Series ring as a coach for the 2005 White Sox. The most shocking fact is, he never got more than 6% of the BBWAA vote.

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