On Tim Raines, And Fandom
Later today, Tim Raines will learn that he’s been snubbed by Hall of Fame voters for the third time. That Raines won’t get anywhere close to the 75% of the vote required for induction is a damning statement on the cognitive abilities and biases of the Baseball Writers Association of America.
Raines’ worthiness has been documented at length. He’s the best pure base stealer of all-time, swiping 808 bases at an 85% success rate — easily the highest rate of success for any base stealer at or near that frequency. He also reached base more times in his career than Roberto Clemente, Tony Gwynn or Lou Brock. Replace 400 of Raines’ walks with singles and he has 3,000 hits and strolls into the Hall. Or just replace, say, 600 Raines walks with 400 singles and 200 outs — he’s an inferior player at that point, but he still has his 3,000 hits, and he’s in.
Joe Posnanski has written at length about Raines. So has Rob Neyer. We’ve got enough Raines stats, stories and factoids at Raines30.com to keep you busy until next year’s vote. Or you can peruse the interview I did with Raines in December 2007, with his first vote imminent and the collective blindness of the electorate not yet exposed. Sadly, I strongly suspect that many Hall of Fame voters can’t be bothered to give the matter much thought, much less do any kind of significant research or reading of others’ opinions (though it has been heartening to see quite a few BBWAA members pop up on the Web and places like Twitter, soliciting others’ opinions and reconsidering their thoughts on Raines and others).
Anyway, that’s all old hat at this point. What’s really got me jazzed this morning is a 1984 SI profile of Raines written by Ron Fimrite, linked to in Chad Finn’s fine Hall of Fame post for the Boston Globe. This Raines profile is so good, I’m giving the link to it its own paragraph. In caps. And bold. With three exclamation points.
OK, I have to drop some pullquote love here, because frankly, I can’t remember the last time I ever smiled this much reading an article. The anecdotes are great and the nostalgia is so overwhelming, I can actually close my eyes and imagine I’m nine years old reading this story, just after my dad bought me first subscription to Sports Illustrated (soon after, my dad also bought me both the Elias annuals and Bill James Abstracts — not bad, eh?). Here we go.
Picture Day, when camera-packing fans pile out of the stands to snap local heroes on the ball field, is pretty strange anyway. This is when the players become photographers’ models, and most of the Expos looked as comfortable in that role as schoolboys on the principal’s carpet.
In fact, only one of the ballplayer-models seemed genuinely to be enjoying himself—Tim Raines, the spunky outfielder. Raines clowned unashamedly through the entire 45-minute session, pretending to fall off his platform, hiding behind other players, putting his cap on backward, grappling with the Expos’ resident creature, Youppi, who resembles a large orange platypus, and generally treating his photographers to a variety of imaginative poses. The fans responded in kind, cheering him and howling with laughter at his relentless japery. He made the whole bizarre spectacle seem fun.
You think Brett Favre’s just having fun out there? Tim Raines was by all accounts one of the most upbeat, fun-loving athletes of the past 30 years, a man with a constant smile on his face, who never failed to make others smile. Just because ESPN wasn’t in the business of cramming close-ups of Raines in your face five months a year (with fawning commentary the other seven) doesn’t mean Raines wasn’t the epitome of a likable athlete.
Also, Fimrite says Youppi! resembles a “large orange platypus.” Aside from the general awesomeness of that statement, the author strikes a chord here. My friends and I used to pile into the Big O some 30-40 times a year, walk-up tickets each and every time. Some activities might vary from game to game. But there were a few must-do rituals that happened virtually every game.
One of the biggest was trying to guess the origins and identity of Youppi! Elan suggested he was a cat caught on the Big O’s range roof in the middle of a freak thunderstorm, struck by special lightning that transformed him into Youppi!. Eric figured Youppi! must be some kind of freaky bear, rejected by the circus and forced to entertain the masses by sliding on the Expos dugout, popping wheelies on his ATV and hamming it up for pictures with suits in the big-wig seats. Fimrite’s description of a platypus might be the winner, though.
Other Big O must-do activities:
–We stuffed our faces, with poutine one of the biggest go-to choices. I felt really sorry for fans of other teams who never knew the joy of stuffing their faces with French fries slathered in gravy and melted cheese curds while watching Pascual Perez throw eephus pitches as his jheri curls dripped to the turf.
–We mimicked the booming, echoing voice of the PA announcer, especially the French parts. “LE VOLTIGEUR DE CENTRE, center fielder….Miiiitch….Websterrrrrr!!!”
–We ogled the Guess Jeans dancers.
–We egged on our friend Brian to dance during the Guess Fan of the game contest. The contest went like this: A fan that showed the most enthusiasm on the Jumbotron camera would win a Guess Jeans gift certificate. If that fan was wearing Guess Jeans, he or she would also win a cash prize. The cash prize started at $300, and went up by $300 for every game that it went unclaimed. Since Brian was the only one of us who wore Guess Jeans, and since he wasn’t what you’d call a strong candidate to be cast for Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, he was the no-brainer pick.
Well, this was the third game of a three-game series, and the Expos were poised to sweep. So, naturally, we raided our moms’ closets and brought oh, a good six to eight brooms and mops. We figured the best way to get the camera’s attention was to have Brian do an elaborate dance whilst swaying a broom and mop over his head. And it worked! The camera would show a random cute girl, then flash to Brian. A fat guy in a Larry Walker jersey, then flash to Brian. On and on this went for a good minute. Victory seemed assured. The jackpot was $1,200. For a bunch of hoser teenagers, this would be like winning Powerball. We could taste the many, many post-game celebration beers already.
And then, without warning, the scoreboard flashed to some dude swishing ribbons over his head, the kind you see in rhythmic gymnastics. The camera went Brian, rhythmic gymnastics dude, Brian, rhythmic gymnastics dude. Finally it stopped…on gymnastics dude! Heartbreak city! The Expos went on to win the game and sweep the series, and we did in fact go out to Peel Pub (the only choice for broke dudes who had no problem with cheap, recycled beer) for post-game libations. Not two minutes after we sat down, the big TV in the corner started showing highlights of the Expos game. The highlights didn’t lead with some dramatic strikeout or booming home run. Instead they showed…rhythmic gymnastics dude!
“I try to get as much of a lead as I can without having to dive back to the base,” says Raines. “For me, that’s one foot on the turf and one on the dirt. I rely on jumps and quickness. I’m at top speed after one step. You have to have acceleration to be a base stealer. If you have all of that, it takes a perfect throw.”
Love, love, love when players go into some detail about how they do what they do. If we’re going to put ex-athletes behind the mic to do color commentary, or in the studio for a talking heads show, this is the stuff I want to hear. Fine details about a hitter’s ability to keep his head steady; in-depth breakdowns of a pitcher’s mechanics; second-by-second accounts of basestealing technique. Spare me your thoughts on MVP worthiness or anything to do with stats, ex-jocks. I can get that from any number of great writers, or even a learned play-by-play man like Boog Sciambi. Tell us what all those years of training and playing taught you.
On defense Raines led all National League outfielders in ’83 with 21 assists, and he tied a team record by making only four errors. He has been shifted from left to centerfield this year to take greater advantage of his sprinter’s speed and to give former centerfielder Dawson’s aching knees some relief in right. Expos coach Felipe Alou, who played alongside Willie Mays with the Giants and therefore knows a little about the position, says of Raines, “I think he’ll wind up as the best centerfielder in the game. He may not have Mays’s or Dawson’s arm, but he has great range, and with his speed he can play shallow. He gets a good jump on the ball, and he’s not bothered by walls. He has a great sense of where he is on the field. Mays had that. You’d think Willie would kill himself running into a wall, but he never did.” Manager Bill Virdon, himself a premier centerfielder in the ’50s and ’60s, says Raines has “the three ingredients you need to be a centerfielder—judgment, speed and good hands. And he covers so much ground, he was wasted in leftfield.”
I want to take this paragraph behind the bleachers and get it pregnant. In a few sentences you’ve got:
–A stat that reinforces what we knew about Raines – that despite his weak arm, he was so quick and so smart in his prime as an outfielder that he could get into position to make throws that were in his wheelhouse and gun down runners on the basepaths.
–Discussion of Raines having the qualities of a solid center fielder. A good center fielder, all else being equal, offers more value than a good left fielder, because he faces a tougher task defensively, and it’s harder to find elite offense from a CF than a LF. Raines wasn’t about to usurp Andre Dawson right off the bat, and he actually broke in as a second baseman. You have to wonder what might’ve been if Raines spent his entire minor league career learning to become a good center fielder, and if he’d been handed that job from day one in the big leagues. The same thing applies to Carl Crawford of the Rays by the way. Crawford claims he’s uncomfortable playing there, so the Rays use him in left instead, and his value to the team is automatically curtailed. But if he’d played in center for years beforehand, he might’ve mastered the position and made himself that much more valuable.
–Felipe Alou is cited here as a coach for the Expos. Those who watched Alou manage later on with the Giants probably didn’t like him much. But our posse adored Felipe, to an almost unhealthy degree. When he later became the Expos’ manager and made a move we found puzzling at first, one of us would simply touch an index finger to our nose. That was the sign for “Felipe knows,” as in, don’t worry, he’s got this. More often than not, those moves worked perfectly. It’s a crying shame that Alou had to toil for so long in the bush leagues and then as a coach and underling in the majors before finally getting his shot as a skipper. He was ahead of his time in his ability to handle a pitching staff, finding the perfect balance between getting the most out of his starters, pulling them early enough to preserve their arms, and pulling the right levers in the bullpen. When the esteemed Dr. F bought me an Expos jersey for my birthday while we were dating, she didn’t go for Walker or Grissom or Martinez or an old-school choice like Raines or Dawson or Carter. She chose Alou #17 – Felipe’s number, not Moises’ #18. I still wear it with pride.
–Alou mentions Raines and Willie Mays in the same breath. Debate the comparison all you want. I just like seeing those names close together.
Teammate Pete Rose is unequivocal in assessing Raines: “Right now he’s the best player in the National League. Mike Schmidt is a tremendous player and so are Dale Murphy and Andre Dawson, but Rock [ Raines's nickname, more about that later] can beat you in more ways than any other player in the league. He can beat you with his glove, his speed and his hitting from either side of the plate. And he has the perfect disposition for a great player—he has fun. He’s just a happy guy. You can’t tell if he has gone oh for four or four for four. He’s the same at eight in the morning as he is at eight at night. I’ve never seen him in a bad mood. And as far as running the bases, I don’t see how they ever throw him out. But he doesn’t just do it on speed alone. He knows the pitchers, so he gets a great jump.”
“Teammate Pete Rose”!!! That’s right, Rose was an Expo in 1984, even got his 4,000th hit with the team. Rose previously played with Schmidt, who’s rightly viewed as perhaps the greatest third baseman of all-time. And yet Pete checked off Schmidt, Dawson and Dale Murphy, three of the best players in the National League of that era…and said Raines is better than all of ‘em.
Hey, all you writers who say Tim Raines was never dominant: Bon appetit.
“If anyone ever had million-dollar legs,” says the veteran infielder Chris Speier, “Timmy’s got ‘em.”
Raines drove in so many runs leading off last season and hit so well with runners in scoring position—a team-leading .368—that Virdon dropped him from leadoff to third in the batting order this season, a controversial move that some observers felt would both change and hurt Raines’s game. Well, they were wrong and they were right. At the end of last week Raines ranked among the league’s top 10 players in on-base percentage (.396), hits (73), runs (41), RBIs (37), walks (37) and, of course, steals, but his average was down to .300 from a high of .344 on May 14.
If you’re one of those people who can’t be bothered with new-fangled stats like on-base percentage, I don’t know what to tell you. Fimrite’s on it with Raines in this article from 26 years ago. Hell, Branch Rickey valued it.
Raines, typically, doesn’t care where he plays or bats, although he was worried at first that the move to center might offend Dawson, a fellow Floridian who is his closest friend on the team and the godfather and namesake of his younger son. “We had the best centerfielder in baseball out there in Andre,” says Raines. “He’s helped me so much. He’s helped my career just by being around him. He’s been like a father as well as a teammate and a friend to me. But he figured it was a good move for him, especially the way his knees felt…”
I mean…how can you not love this guy? Talk about respecting a teammate and an elder.
“Second isn’t my position, though. There was no way I could catch a ground ball hit right at me. I guess that’s how I got the nickname Rock. I got it my rookie year—they say because of my hands, but I like to think it’s more because I’m short [5'8"] and stocky [177 pounds]. You know, built like a little rock.”
The media long ago took hold of the idea that Raines was nicknamed Rock because he supposedly kept a vial of rock cocaine in his back pocket while playing, to the point that he would always slide head first while trying to steal. But that wasn’t the original impetus behind the nickname. Just so you know.
Just 24 years old and approaching the top of his form, Raines has an enviable future. “He’s got so many years ahead of him,” says catcher Gary Carter, “that I see no reason why he can’t be in the 3,000-hit club.” “Only an unforeseeable injury can keep him from greatness,” says pitcher Steve Rogers. “I think Rock has more potential than Joe Morgan,” says Rose.
On June 29 of that year, Raines didn’t appear for a game against the Mets, complaining of a headache and nausea. McHale sent team physician Dr. Robert Broderick to Raines’s apartment in downtown Montreal. “The doctor said he was in dangerous condition and needed help immediately,” says McHale. It was discovered that Raines had a cocaine habit; ultimately cocaine would cost him $40,000 in the first nine months of ’82. It was apparent he needed more help than the psychiatric care the Expos could provide him. The ’82 season ended on Sunday, Oct. 3, and on Thursday he entered the CareUnit Hospital in Orange, Calif. He stayed a month and was joined for his final week by his wife, Virginia, and his parents, Ned and Florence Raines of Sanford, Fla. “We’d have these group rap sessions,” says Florence. “I’d be there listening to total strangers, and tears would be running down my face.”
There’s quite a bit about Raines’ struggle with cocaine use, with some telling, often emotional quotes and details. Really good stuff. And for those who would hold Raines’ past drug use against him – Paul Molitor breezed into the Hall of Fame on his first try. Draw whatever conclusions you like.
Instead he signed with the Expos after graduation in 1977, married Virginia in ’79 and is now the father of Tim Jr. ( Little Rock), 4, and Andre (Little Hawk), who will have his first birthday on July 10.
Little Rock and Little Hawk! If those weren’t the two coolest kids in their school, I’d like to see that school.
“I never dreamed of playing major league baseball,” he said finally. “I have to pinch myself to make certain it’s real because I’m afraid I’ll wake up and find myself back in Sanford. Yes, things are looking up. I just hope I never have to look back.”
It’s getting a little dusty in here.
In about an hour’s time, we’ll learn who’s getting into the Hall of Fame this time around. Early tracking done by Jason Collette at Dock of the Rays and Repoz at Baseball Think Factory have Roberto Alomar, Bert Blyleven and Andre Dawson projected to be inducted. This would be a fantastic group. Alomar is one of the greatest second basemen to ever play the game, and Richard Lederer has spent so much time and effort convincing us of Blyleven’s greatness that I’m tempted to kick Christy Mathewson out of the Hall if it means getting Bert in.
Dawson is in some ways a trickier case. He’s got a bunch of qualities that fit the Hall of Fame profile. But he also sports a career .323 on-base percentage. I loved the Hawk, but I can’t quite swallow his contention (and that of those who back him) that his job was to drive in runs, not reach base in those days, which explains his low OBP. Nobody ever wanted players to make outs, and Dawson made ‘em more than two-thirds of the times he came to bat. If I had a vote, everyone above Dawson is in, and everyone below him is out. He’s my cut-off.
But you know what? This isn’t a post about numbers. It’s not even a post about being worthy or not.
This is about growing up with the team you loved, cheering on your favorite players, rejoicing with their triumphs and being saddened by their defeats. It’s about Youppi! and poutine, brooms and mops, the long Metro ride to the ballpark and the rush that came every time you walked through that tunnel at Pie-IX station into the Big O. Andre Dawson was an integral part of all those memories. If Hawk gets his announcement today, I’ll do everything in my power to get to Cooperstown for his Hall of Fame induction speech. I’ll dance with joy every time he mentions his days with the Expos, how he remembers coming up as a young kid in Montreal, playing with some of the best players of his generation, including his protege, the great Tim Raines.
And maybe one day, if the stars align just right, Rock will join Hawk in the Hall. Then Raines can send the compliment right back.
MEDIA STUFF: I did an interview with Bugs & Cranks about Raines’ candidacy. Please forgive the umms and you knows – babies and book deadline have me a bit sleep-deprived.
Also, I’ll be on ESPN 1420 (Honolulu) talking about the Hall of Fame, Matt Holliday, Jason Bay and much more at 1:20 pm ET. You can listen live here.