As a grade schooler in the summer of 1998, I was bewildered by a hot take from an older relative of mine during a family gathering. We had the Orioles game on the television in the background — as was common at those events — and while discussing the team he told me we needed to shake up the roster by cutting Cal Ripken and Harold Baines because they were both old and slow.
I couldn’t believe his statement, considering the inclusion of larger-than-life Cal and to a lesser degree, Harold Baines. And that right there could be the story of Baines’ career: being known as the guy who was constantly overshadowed by higher-profile teammates.
But that guy made the Hall of Fame, despite accumulating the majority of his at-bats as a designated hitter and despite failing to be selected after his initial five years on the ballot. But way down the line in 2018, he would get another chance from the HOF Historical Overview Committee and at that time he finally made the cut.
Speed was never his game; being a pure hitter was.
Regardless, the 6’2”, 175-lb Baines had a propensity to make two outs at once, as evidenced by the 80 times he grounded into a double play during his tenure in Baltimore, which was good for 24th most in Orioles history. In 666 career games with the O’s over parts of seven seasons, Baines attempted to steal a bag five times and was successful once. Interestingly enough, it happened on April 27, 1999 during a double steal when Albert Belle stole home and Baines was able to sneak into second base on the back end of the play.
Despite being slow on the base paths, Baines was quick to come back to the Orioles again and again over the second half of his career. He spent the first nine and a half years of his baseball life with the White Sox, then bounced around between the Rangers and Athletics for a few years before joining the Orioles as a free agent in 1993 at the ripe old age of 34.
During his first stint in Baltimore from 1993-1995, he averaged 113 games and 20 home runs per season with a batting line of .303/.385/.513 and a 131 OPS+. After a year and a half back in Chicago, Baines was traded from the White Sox to the O’s on July 29, 1997 for a player to be named later.
I got hooked on baseball as a young kid because of those strong Oriole teams in the mid-to-late 90s, which Harold Baines was a part of in the 1997 season when the Birds went 98-64 and finished first in the AL East. Between the ALDS against Seattle and the ALCS against Cleveland that year, Baines went 8-for-22 (.364) at the plate with a pair of home runs.
He performed well in 1998 with a .300/.369/.451 triple slash and 114 OPS+ despite being on an Orioles team that fell well short of expectations and finished 4th in their division. He played very well for the O’s the next season at the age of 40, hitting .322/.395/.583 with 24 home runs and a 151 OPS+ before being traded to Cleveland in late August.
Following the 1999 season, he re-signed with the Orioles yet again, hitting .266/.349/.437 before he was traded away again, spending the last year and a half of his career with the organization where it all began: the Chicago White Sox.
I didn’t personally appreciate Baines’ consistency as a hitter until long after he retired. During his time with the Orioles, he was able to put up some of his best numbers. His career batting average was .289 but his career Orioles batting average was .301, placing him 13th all time among Orioles players. His OBP and SLG with Baltimore were 23 and 37 points higher, respectively, than his career marks in those categories.
He also ranks highly on many of the Orioles’ all time hitting category leaderboards, including 17th in OBP (.379), 7th in SLG (.502), 27th in HR (107), 38th in RBI (378) and 10th in AB/HR (19.8). Those numbers speak for themselves.
Yet Baines was known for being a quiet guy, hardly a rah-rah cheerleader or flashy type of player. I remember his mannerisms at the plate very well. How he often had this thousand-mile stare when he would step out of the batter’s box in between pitches, with a look in his eyes that made him almost seem sad to me.
As fans it can be easy to interpret that kind of behavior as a lack of interest, as though we need all pro ball players to live and die with every pitch like a lot of us do. In the case of Baines it could just be that his low-key personality was a vital attribute that enabled his remarkable consistency in a mental game where getting too high or too low can prove detrimental. He just seemed comfortable in himself and his strengths, and his performance in Baltimore while playing for the O’s conveyed that sense of ease.
Matter of fact, Baines has Maryland roots. He was born and raised in the small town of St. Michaels, just over the Bay Bridge and south of Kent Island in Talbot County. Funny enough, there’s an old story that goes like this: former White Sox owner Bill Veeck first discovered Baines when he was a 12-year-old Little Leaguer on the Eastern Shore. Veeck would later make him the first overall pick out of St. Michaels High School in the 1977 Amateur Draft.
Many years later, he went on to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame — his selection for which was quite divisive, as evidenced in this Sports Illustrated piece from 2018. All he did was accumulate a .289/.356/.465/.820 batting line, 121 OPS+, 384 home runs and 2,866 hits. Baines went into the Hall wearing a White Sox hat, but that should not preclude him from being one of the Top 50 All Time Orioles.
He was a consummate professional with a pure hitting tool, a patient eye at the plate and some pop in his bat. No, he wasn’t a five-tool player. But the things he did well, he did really well.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference.