LAS VEGAS – If the conclusion has been drawn that this particular Hall of Fame committee will view a player as something more than the sum of his not unsubstantial numbers – as reliable, as accountable, as relentless, as therefore deserving – then the committee is unlikely to argue.
If the committee – this one named for “Today’s Game Era” and tasked like the others to clean up after the Baseball Writers’ Association of America – had to, it also could defend Harold Baines’ 2,866 hits and Lee Smith’s 478 saves as Hall worthy, and defend their positions – designated hitter and closer – as valuable, and their longevity as favorable.
The blowback has been significant and, perhaps, not misguided. Smith lived on the ballot for 15 years, until 2017, never drawing less than 29.9 percent of the votes or more than 50.6 percent. This is the achingly discouraging lifespan of the Hall of Fame tweener. Baines narrowly survived on the ballot for four years, was out after five, and perhaps he would view that as the more humane way to go. Either way, the result was the same, both sent to the Hall of Pretty Damn Good.
Until this week, of course, when the 12-person committee voted unanimously for Smith and enough for Baines to restart two arguments already settled. Folks were outraged, of course, and highly offended, because a narrow and clearly blind dozen had the temerity to overrule the broad and clearly idiotic hundreds, which leaves us about where we started – in 2018 and calling each other blind idiots.
The Baines vote, in particular, strikes the Big Hall bloc as permission to vote everybody in, while the Small Hallers point out everybody is already in. The outcome is that those unhappiest about this is … everybody.
Except, and this is not unimportant, on Monday afternoon the two men themselves stood on a dais and accepted their new jerseys and caps, and Baines laughed when Smith buttoned his jersey wrong, so that the “Hall” part of the script finished two inches above the “of Fame” part, and big ol’ Lee got a big kick out of that, too. It was then that you’d have reminded yourself that these were two very capable, very productive, very proud and today very deserving former players who lived with the BBWAA vote and now will live with the committee vote, Baines stoically and Smith with that way he manages to laugh at about everything.
“When I look at a player, it’s different,” said Joe Torre, a member of the committee who as a player endured 15 fruitless years on the ballot before a committee accepted him as a manager. “I look at players and I think, ‘Tough out.’ ‘I don’t want to face him with the game in the balance.’ And it’s something more than that. The one thing Harold said up there was just dynamite. He said, ‘I didn’t play this game for the Hall of Fame. I played it for the job.’”
The vote thought more of a pile of numbers accumulated over a pile of years. The vote did not dismiss, say, runs batted in. Not entirely. The vote was, perhaps, the result of 12 folks who think a little too much alike, which doesn’t mean the committee was wrong but as a whole thought for itself, and we probably should celebrate the fact that 12 people came together and agreed on something. Start there. Anyone offended by that is free to pout over it for a good thousand words or so, double-spaced, an exclamation point or two.
The temporary result of this was Baines expressing his gratitude a few words at a time, pleased to have the loquacious Smith nearby and eager to engage. The long-term effect is they will stand on a stage in upstate New York come late July, and they will feel like they belong, because they will belong, and they will feel the same pangs of mortality that come disguised as immortality.
Harold Baines will recall his father, Linwood Jr., a mason who died three years ago.
Otherwise unmoved during a news conference assembled to celebrate/sort through how this happened and why, Baines had mentioned his family, then practically melted at the thought of his dad. He’d been asked who was most proud of him today.
“Probably my family,” he said. “My wife and my four kids. My mother.”
“My father’s not here,” he said and put his hand to his face and lowered his head.
He recovered for a moment.
“He was my hero,” he said.
He lost it again, pulled it together again.
“That’s the only thing I’ll miss,” he said while fighting off tears, “is him not being here.”
One of them is. And for the next several months he will not defend the committee’s decision and he will not answer those who suggest this is undeserved and he will not speculate on what this might mean for coming votes, because these are not topics of much interest to him. Like his father, Linwood, he showed up and worked for a very long time. If people wanted to recognize him for that, then he would attend the party. If not, well, he doesn’t seem to be much for parties on his behalf anyway.
“I wasn’t sitting around thinking about it, to be honest,” Baines said. “I’m very honored to be here. It’s a very special day. A lot of my friends are here. I’m honored to be part of this great fraternity I’m joining. But, to be honest, I wasn’t sitting around waiting for it, to get a call. Because I didn’t play the game for the Hall of Fame. I played a game to have a job and try to win championships.”
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