Speedster's 10-year journey to HOF scripts beautiful ending
By Joe Posnanski
For the past 10 years, Tim Raines has been very much on our minds. This is the wonder of the Baseball Hall of Fame. We don't really have deep conversations about long-ago players like Raines in other sports -- you don't hear too many people celebrating or arguing about Alex English or Andre Tippett or Mike Gartner.
But Raines, yes, for a decade now people have been contemplating him, quarreling about him, remembering him as a blur between first and second base, remembering him as a part-time player for the second half of his career, learning all sorts of new things about him. Did you know that Raines got on base more times than Tony Gwynn? Wow. Did you know that in his rookie season in 1981, he stole 50 bases in his first 54 games? Raines was on pace to absolutely shatter the stolen base record. And then the strike came. Remember?
The story of Raines getting elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, I think, is the story of why the Baseball Hall of Fame is so wonderful. Yes, of course, the Baseball Hall -- like all Halls of Fame -- celebrates the obvious legends, the players who were universally admired and revered in their time, Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, Johnny Bench, Ted Williams, Henry Aaron, Greg Maddux, Bob Feller, Ken Griffey Jr.
But then there's a second category of Hall of Famer, players whose greatness was perhaps overlooked in their time, players whose excellence was overshadowed. Raines was one of those players. He did not hit .300 for his career. He did not compile 3,000 hits. Raines never won an MVP Award or a Gold Glove. He was a part-time player in the only World Series he ever played in. He did not make the All-Star team after he turned 28.
For the most part, Raines was known for what he was not. He was not Rickey Henderson.
Of course, no one was Rickey Henderson. It wasn't a fair comparison, it was like saying that Jeff Bagwell does not belong in the Hall of Fame because he is not Lou Gehrig. But because of a quirk of timing, Raines and Henderson came along together at precisely the same time, and Henderson was the star, Raines the understudy. In Raines' first year on the Hall of Fame ballot (2008), he got less than a quarter of the vote. The next year, Henderson came on the ballot, breezed in his first ballot at 95 percent, and Raines' percentage went down.
It seemed like Raines would slowly, surely, agonizingly fall off the Hall of Fame ballot.
Only then ... people began to look a little bit closer. The things Raines did so well were not obvious. Then, his whole baseball career was not obvious. Raines did not dream of playing baseball while growing up in Sanford, Fla. He wanted to play football at the University of Florida and then go on to the NFL as a wide receiver. Raines probably could have done that. But his father, Ned, was a legendary semi-pro baseball player. His younger brother, Ned II, was exactly Tim's height and weight (5-foot-8, 160 pounds) and was considered a better prospect than Tim (he went higher in the Draft).
So Raines gave himself two years to make a name for himself in baseball, and he was dead set on walking on at Florida if it didn't work out. At the end of his second full Minor League season, though, he got six games in the big leagues for Montreal. He stole two bases without getting caught.
So it began. Raines was successful in his first 27 stolen-base attempts. It seemed like no catcher would ever throw him out. Few ever did. His 808 stolen bases rank fifth on the all-time list -- one of the four ahead of him, Slidin' Billy Hamilton, played in the 19th century -- but none of the great basestealers was as efficient as Raines. He was successful in 85 percent of his attempts. He was a genius at reading pitchers and getting jumps and stealing bases. At age 41, long after his speed had left him, Raines attempted one stolen base. He made it, of course.
"Speed played a big role," Raines says, "but the reaction time ... was really the most important thing."
Raines also walked a lot. Nobody noticed that when he played, few cared even after he played. People will always underestimate walks. Yes, Raines hit for average in his prime, yes, he won a batting title in 1986 and hit .330 the next year. But the real strength of his hitting was his ability to foul off pitches and get in the heads of pitchers and get on base. Tony Gwynn hit .338 for his career and Raines hit .294, but their on-base percentages are virtually identical (Gwynn led .388 to .385) because Raines found other ways.
And of course, with Raines, those walks were doubles because he stole so many bases and was almost never caught. Raines scored almost 200 more runs than Gwynn. Also, Raines hit with surprising power for a small man. He cracked 160 home runs -- only the great Joe Morgan among men his size hit more.
At the start of this Hall of Fame journey, Raines was seen as a very good but not great player. Over time, a fuller picture developed. Voters began to realize how he altered games with his plate discipline, his speed, his power. No, Raines was not as good as Henderson ... but perhaps being the second-best leadoff man in history isn't a bad thing. Slowly, his percentages started rising, to 30 percent then to 38 up to 49 and so on.
"I can't say it was difficult [to wait], like, the first six years," Raines says, "because I didn't really have the votes to actually even consider thinking that the next year I would get in."
And then, last year, there was a shift. Raines' percentage jumped from 55 to 70 percent, and suddenly Raines realized he was on the Hall of Fame doorstep. This got him excited. And it made him extraordinarily nervous. "Last night," Raines admitted after his election, "is probably the worst night I've had out of the 10 years."
From one point of view, all of this is kind of ridiculous, right? Raines is no better a baseball player today, after he got 86 percent of the vote, than he was 10 years ago when he got 24 percent. In the past decade, he didn't add one hit, one steal, one great catch to his resume. But, in the end, I don't think it's ridiculous. It's beautiful. For all those years, we have relived the career of Raines again and again. And after all that time, the career ends in Cooperstown, exactly where it should.
Joe Posnanski is a No. 1 New York Times best-selling author, an Emmy Award-winning writer and has been awarded National Sportswriter of the Year. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.