"Personally, I've never seen a more clutch player," added White Sox general manager Ken Williams. "There may have been guys who have hit more home runs, whether it was against left-handed pitchers or right-handed pitchers, or guys who have driven in more runs or played more games. But I'm talking for my money, there never has been a more clutch player than Harold Baines. Not during my time."
That clutch hitting for Baines, who turns 48 on March 15, led to an amazing 1,628 RBIs despite only topping the 100-RBI plateau three times -- in 1982 (105) and 1985 (113) with the White Sox and with Baltimore and Cleveland in 1999 (103). Baines turned 40 before the 1999 campaign.
It's a model for consistent excellence on Baines' part, but the current question is whether this level of excellence will be good enough to get Baines elected to the Hall of Fame. The present ballot marks Baines' first chance after retiring with the White Sox in 2001. He's joined by fellow first-time players such as San Diego's Tony Gwynn, Baltimore's Cal Ripken Jr. and Mark McGwire.
A candidate must get 75 percent of the vote to gain election. Results of the 2007 BBWAA Hall of Fame election will be announced on Jan. 9, and the induction ceremony will take place on July 29 in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Along with Baines' tremendous RBI total, placing him 23rd all-time, the left-handed slugger finished with a .289 average, 384 home runs, 488 doubles, 1,299 runs scored, 1,062 walks against just 1,441 strikeouts and a most impressive 2,830 games played. Baines also checks in at 2,866 career hits, which ranks 39th, but also leaves him 134 short of what has been considered the magic number for enshrinement.
This particular number bothers Reinsdorf more so than Baines. The White Sox chairman, who counts Baines as one of his favorite people, feels somewhat personally responsible for Baines coming up short of 3,000.
"What really has bothered me for a long time is that if we hadn't traded him, he would have his 3,000 hits, and he would be a lock for the Hall of Fame," said Reinsdorf, who oversaw Baines' trade to Texas on July 29, 1989, and to Baltimore on July 29, 1997. "We traded him twice -- and into bad situations where he was a platoon player.
"If he stayed with us, he would have gone over 3,000 hits. If he doesn't get in, it would really bug me. I talk to him about it, and he just shrugs it off."
Coming up a little short of 3,000 hits might not be the only hurdle Baines has to leapfrog. Without the automatic triggers for hits or the 500 home runs, Baines might be viewed as an extremely good player but just short of the elite level for Hall of Fame enshrinement. His numbers are comparable to those of Andre Dawson, who has not been voted in, but also fall in the same group as Tony Perez and Billy Williams, who have been elected.
Many people will forget Baines' natural ability as an outfielder during the early portion of his career, when he finished with 10 assists in each year from 1981-83 and 15 assists in 1986. But Baines did not play the field from 1993 through his retirement in 2001.
"He's going to have a tough time because for a good part of his career he was a designated hitter and a lot of writers won't vote for a DH," said Reinsdorf, who pointed out Baines' strong defensive ability in the outfield early in his career.
Baines, never one to promote himself for any individual accolades, simply feels honored to be included with his fellow standout teammates and opponents. Induction on this first ballot is a "long shot" in Baines' mind, with Baines listing Edgar Martinez as probably the first DH to be elected. But without pointing to himself, Baines feels the DH definitely should be considered by perspective voters like any other position.
"It's part of the game and definitely should be included," Baines said. "If not, then get rid of it all together. Frank Thomas has been a DH a long time, and he's not a Hall of Famer? That has to be addressed.
"But I'm not going to go out there and push the issue. I don't think you just go off of numbers from what I'm seeing. I don't know the criteria, and I don't know exactly what voters are looking for. Maybe someone should write about the criteria.
"I was fortunate to play for 22 years," Baines added. "If I happen to get elected in my lifetime, I would be very grateful. If not, I still had a great career."
Manager Ozzie Guillen, who not only employs Baines as his first-base coach but also views the quiet Baines as one of his closest friends, believes Baines should campaign more for his own cause. Guillen also laid the public push for Baines on everyone in the White Sox organization, from the coaches and players to members of the public relations and marketing departments.
The resume featuring Baines' 22 years of service seems to speak volumes on his behalf, not to mention six All-Star Game selections and a .324 average with five home runs and 16 RBIs over 102 postseason at-bats. But if there was one deciding factor for Baines' supporters, it was his ability to come through in the clutch that sets him apart.
"I was taught well in the Minors by Tony La Russa," Baines said. "From the seventh inning on, pitchers shouldn't want to face you because you should try to be a tough out. I never wanted to make the last out of a ballgame, and the true hitters, the consistent players, were the guys who could hit with two outs and men in scoring position."
"Don't tell me what a guy hits. Tell me when he hits it," added White Sox television voice Ken "Hawk" Harrelson, who includes Baines with Carl Yastrzemski and George Brett as the top clutch hitters he's ever witnessed in his 44 years involved with the game. "Harold was a seventh-, eighth- and ninth-inning player, always coming up with big base hits off tough pitching."