How the Internet helped get Tim Raines voted into the Hall of Fame

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports US

This win belongs to the Internet. It is that of the late, of the beloved Baseball Prospectus, of the modern Twitter apparatus that has taken the great intention of its forebears, weaponized it and deployed it with all the care and concern of a toddler who wants what he wants cuz he wants it. Really, truly, this belongs to Tim Raines, Hall of Famer, a title that never seemed likely to follow his name, and for that reason, it is a moment worth celebrating.

He is here – baseball is here – because of what burbled up from the cauldron of knowledge online, because the idea that another of the finest players from the 1980s would go unrecognized in Cooperstown was too much for some to bear. The nerds, as always, started the revolution, and it made enough sense that it started to permeate the mainstream, and that brought out the zealots who lobbied – shamed? – those not riding the Raines train to hop aboard.

And then came Wednesday, when Jeff Idelson, president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, welcomed Raines to its corridors in his 10th and final year of eligibility. Eight years ago, Raines couldn’t muster a checkmark from even a quarter of the electorate, and here he was, two revolutions later, at 86 percent, joining Jeff Bagwell, Pudge Rodriguez, Bud Selig and John Schuerholz in what should be an interesting induction weekend July 30.

The first revolution already was five years old when Raines first appeared on the ballot in 2008. Moneyball, at that point, still was misunderstood – actually, little has changed in that regard – but had infiltrated enough front offices and journalistic minds that the idea of Tim Raines, hidden superstar, wasn’t entirely novel. Just because he rarely hit home runs or finished his career shy of 3,000 hits did not kneecap his candidacy. It was, actually, even simpler than the round-number ideal to which Hall of Fame voters regularly hewed.

Tim Raines received 86 percent of the vote from the Hall of Fame electorate. (Getty Images)
Tim Raines received 86 percent of the vote from the Hall of Fame electorate. (Getty Images)

It’s amazing that this still needs explaining, but alas: One of Moneyball’s most important points was breaking down the equation of a run. Runs are the greatest currency in baseball. To score a run, one must be on base. Thus, players who get on base more are inherently more valuable. This is so fundamental, it shouldn’t merit a word here, let alone a paragraph.

Tim Raines reached base 4,076 times in his career. He reached base more than Rogers Hornsby and Lou Brock, more than Mike Schmidt and Brooks Robinson, more than Roberto Alomar and Roberto Clemente – more, yes, than Jeff Bagwell and Pudge Rodriguez. And once Raines reached base, he was a destructive force, one of the finest baserunners of all time, his speed blaring, his savvy vital, the two combined unfair.

These skills carried Raines through the ’80s as their most underappreciated player. Even as he was an All-Star for seven consecutive seasons, never did he finish higher than fifth in MVP voting while with the Montreal Expos. Even when he moved into the American League for the back half of his career, Raines was simply an afterthought, just the steady, switch-hitting, walk-taking left fielder on whom you knew you could rely.

And there is something to that, to the longevity, to the ability to perform into your 30s, then your 40s, and maintain those skills, like a point guard breaking down fools with some righteous old-man game. Raines did not play to bolster his counting stats for the Hall of Fame. He played because he could still play.

Which brings us to the second revolution, the one with far more import because it’s what got Raines to this day. Out of the Usenet newsgroups and Prospectus essays grew this vibrant community of baseball thinkers that wanted to change the way the public looked at the game. Its world is bountiful, its subjects endless and expansive. Jay Jaffe wanted to understand the Hall of Fame and now has become the foremost expert on it. He was an early backer of Raines. So, too, was Jonah Keri, a Prospectus alumnus who grew up an Expos fan and turned a man-crush into a cause.

The points they made – whether judging Raines by peak or full career, he’s a viable candidate, and taking into account both he’s an even better candidate – resonated. Tim Raines was a speakeasy that started getting more and more knocks. And then came social media, and Raines was like the place getting a bunch of five-star Yelp reviews.

“Social media played a big role,” he said Wednesday. “And the new way people look at baseball. You’ve got these new stats. You’ve got WAR. People really didn’t look at it that way back in the day. When you looked at a Hall of Famer, you looked at 500 home runs, 300 wins and 3,000 hits. A lot of times when you didn’t reach those criteria, it was hard for anyone to look at you as a Hall of Famer. The way the game has changed – the way they look at the stats – it has changed a lot of people’s minds.”

Once a few minds shifted into the pro-Raines camp, more followed. Those who didn’t follow heard loudly why voting for Raines was right – or, better put, why they were wrong. As writers have grown accustomed to releasing their ballots publicly – next year, the Hall will publicize every ballot, a move done in the name of transparency – the consequence has been explaining it. This is, in theory, a good thing, a way to force accountability. In practice, it’s not all bad.

The upshot, though, is the pressure to vote a certain way that dovetails with public sentiment, lest a pack of attacks besiege the one who doesn’t. This is no woe-is-me, poor-widdle-writers lament; it’s more a reminder that what passes for conventional wisdom is far from infallible.

Conventional wisdom, remember, said Tim Raines wasn’t a Hall of Famer – that he didn’t hit enough home runs or that his cocaine use would forever smear him or that he didn’t feel like a guy who deserved induction. Opinions can change, and we first saw the power of the Internet with Bert Blyleven, whose Hall of Fame case foundered until benefactors started to educate voters on its merits.

Tim Raines was in his 10th and final year on the ballot. (AP)
Tim Raines was in his 10th and final year on the ballot. (AP)

Raines is Blyleven 2.0, and early Wednesday evening, his phone rang, and he put it on speaker. His wife sat to his right, his twin 6-year-old daughters to his left, and he heard Jack O’Connell with the Baseball Writers Association of America say: “I’m calling to tell you that the writers have elected you to the Hall of Fame.” The glee on his face – on all their faces – radiated. And all he could say was: “Thank you so much.”

He said it to one person and meant it for so many more. Not just those who taught him, who played alongside him, who mentored him, who kept him young, but those who advocated for him simply because of how he played. Over 162 games, deep bonds are formed between the players and those who watch them, ones that are as indivisible as they are invisible. And baseball has the added bonus of its statistics meaning more than any other sport so that another generation can glom onto someone’s greatness without having witnessed it.

They may not have known Raines didn’t even want to play baseball, that his dream was to be in the NFL, and that if baseball didn’t work out, he was going to walk on to the football team at the University of Florida. “Fortunately,” Raines said, “that didn’t work out.” What did was decades in the making, starting with six games as a pinch runner in 1979, ending two weeks after his 43rd birthday and carrying on to today, when really, truly – finally – Tim Raines became what he’d been this whole time: a Hall of Famer.

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