Tim Raines was blazing fast on the basepaths, but making it to Cooperstown required a whole lot of patience
By Jon Schwartz
Yankees Magazine |
Tim Raines played parts of 23 seasons in the Big Leagues, and as you might expect from someone who ended up earning election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame this year, he did a whole lot well. But if you had to choose one attribute above all others by which to remember him, you'd hardly be alone if you focused on his speed.
Few in the history of the game could match Raines for impact on the basepaths. His three-year tenure with the Yankees (1996-98), during which the team won two World Series titles, came later in his career, when he had been slowed down some by time. Yet he remains the most successful base stealer in the game's history among anyone with more than 400 attempts, having been true on 808 of his 954 tries.
He was successful on the first 27 attempts of his career, until he finally got caught trying to nab third on May 2, 1981, just one batter after he stole second. A week later, the May 11, 1981, issue of Sports Illustrated noted the end of his career-opening streak. "There was rejoicing in the National League last Saturday," wrote Jim Kaplan. "Baseball's Raines of Terror had ended. After stealing 27 consecutive bases over three seasons, just 11 short of the Major League record, Montreal's Tim Raines was thrown out by Los Angeles catcher Mike Scioscia trying to steal third at Olympic Stadium. From New York to San Diego pitchers and catchers embraced, second basemen and shortstops cried for joy and managers began to breathe again, albeit nervously."
Raines was a speedy high school running back at Seminole High School in Sanford, Florida, and he seriously flirted with the idea of taking a scholarship to play football for the University of Florida before signing with the Expos, who had taken him with a fifth-round pick in 1977. Once he committed to baseball, he just kept running. At Montreal's Olympic Stadium, the scoreboard would show cartoon chickens whenever a pitcher attempted a pickoff move. Raines would look up at the board and laugh at the 10 or more chickens displayed there. He knew he was winning the mental game.
"Everyone was focusing on me," he recalls. "And I'm not even at the plate. And the fans are going nuts, and they want me to run. And everyone in the ballpark knows I'm going to run. The other team knew, the pitcher knew, the catcher knew. The shortstop and the catcher know I'm going. And it was cool to try and compete against that.
"The fans loved to see me run. And I loved running."
Finally, on Jan. 18, more than 14 years after his last game, Raines learned that the race was over. The campaign for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame - which was waged more by fans than by the humble Raines himself - had finally proven successful in the last year that he was eligible. But as far as slowing down, the end of the marathon actually wasn't all that unusual for the 57-year-old Raines. As it turns out, the great irony of Raines' run to the Hall of Fame is that most of his greatest achievements came when he had to be the most patient.
An Underappreciated Master
The career numbers seem to speak for themselves, even if it took 10 tries on the ballot for their voice to travel to the farthest reaches of the balcony.
"Raines is above the threshold," baseball writer Jonah Keri, a Montreal native and the unofficial manager of the grassroots campaign to get Raines into Cooperstown, said before the results were announced. "He would actually not just be deserving of the Hall of Fame, but he would raise the bar slightly."
Keri, who wrote the definitive book on the Expos' tragedy, Up, Up & Away, can recite the back of Raines' baseball card from memory. He spent years using that data to urge members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America to vote for his childhood hero. He has an answer for every challenge. Raines only had 2,605 hits? Well sure, but he also had 1,330 walks. "If you take 600 of his walks," Keri continues, in a story he's fond of telling, "and you make 400 of them bunt singles -- so really, no effect -- and 200 of them triple plays -- which is preposterous, but anyway -- he would be a way worse player and he would automatically be in the Hall of Fame because he got 3,000 hits."
Rickey Henderson makes all such discussion moot, but when talking about the most feared leadoff hitters of all time, Raines still warrants mentioning. Writing for The Hardball Times in 2008, when Raines was lingering under the 25 percent mark in Hall voting, baseball analyst Tom Tango made the case in definitive terms. "Any time we compare Raines to a reasonable group of Hall of Famers, we always end up with the same thing: Raines is just like them." Comparing Raines' stats as a leadoff hitter to the best ever to fill the role, Tango saw Raines at least measuring up to, and often surpassing, his peers. "Take a big part of Rickey Henderson and Pete Rose, add a good-sized part of Lou Brock, Paul Molitor and Craig Biggio, and stir in some Ichiro Suzuki, Wade Boggs, Joe Morgan, Derek Jeter and Barry Bonds, and you get a composite that is a shade inferior to Tim Raines."
Raines stole at least 70 bases each year from 1981 to 1986, slashing .306/.391/.436 over that time and reaching the All-Star Game in each year. In 1987, despite missing a month in large part due to illegal collusion by MLB owners, Raines soared even higher, leading the league with 123 runs scored in just 139 games and adding 50 more steals. He also batted .330 that year with a .429 on-base percentage, earning a seventh and final All-Star nod. From 1981 to 1990 - his 10 full seasons in Montreal - he posted 46.9 offensive wins above replacement, the best figure in the Senior Circuit.
"From 1983 to 1987, which is Raines' prime, the best player in the National League was not Mike Schmidt, Andre Dawson, Gary Carter, Dale Murphy, Ozzie Smith or any of those guys," Keri said. "It was Tim Raines. It's so patently obvious to me that it feels crazy to keep talking about it."
Getting to The Show
Raines lives in Arizona now, in a golf community southwest of Phoenix. Chasing after twin 6-year-old daughters who roll around the neighborhood on their scooters might help keep him feeling younger than his nearly 60 years, but he definitely walks a bit slower and stands a bit more hunched than he ever did in uniform.
As a player, Raines was known as the center of every circle, the clubhouse prankster, and his laugh still comes easily. "Tim Raines was by far one of my favorite teammates," Jeter said in a statement following the release of the Hall of Fame balloting. "He taught me how to be a professional and, more importantly, to enjoy the game and have fun every day."
Even in a seated position, he bends at the waist and buries his head in his hands whenever something particularly amusing overcomes him. He strikes that pose early on in the conversation on the patio at Goodyear, Arizona's Golf Club of Estrella. Discussing his road to the Majors, rising from one of seven kids in Florida to the brink of the Big Leagues, Raines' facial expression takes a mischievous turn as the drama heats up.
He signed late in 1977, and following the draft, Raines played Rookie League ball, then made a big jump to High-A West Palm Beach the next season. In 1979, he reported to the Double-A Memphis Chicks and played in every game. As the end of the Minor League season approached, Raines got the news that every player dreams of. "They said they were going to call me up to the Big Leagues," he recalls.
These days, the big-league team calls all the shots. If the parent club wants a player, it takes him, no questions asked. But the Expos decided that they would wait for Raines' season in Memphis to end before they called him up. Which would have been fine, but for the fact that the Chicks were still alive in the Southern League playoffs.
Facing the Nashville Sounds, down a game in the best-of-three series, Raines found himself on third base in the third inning, his team trailing 2-0. Despite sitting on a one-way ticket to the Major Leagues, though, Raines refused to give in to any notion of senioritis, no matter how understandable it might have been for him to take his foot off the gas. Left-hander Joe Price began his delivery to the plate, and Raines dashed home, stealing his 58th base on the year.
"I could have said, '[Forget] this, we lose this game, I go to the Big Leagues,'" Raines says. "But I never really looked at it that way."
The Sounds won the third game, then defeated the Columbus Astros to win the Southern League title. Raines? Things worked out just fine for him, even if his golden ticket required a rain check. "I was thinking more about my teammates and my team and trying to win a championship," he says. "I had never won a championship."
The Long Climb to the Top
The championship dreams would have to wait a lot longer than one more day. Until he got to celebrate with the 1996 Yankees, Raines suffered more near-misses than seemed fair. He was Charlie Brown, constantly set to kick the ball through the uprights, but Lucy just kept pulling it away.
The heartbreak started early. Playing high school football in front of packed houses in Florida, every week a miniature Friday Night Lights, Raines' team went undefeated his senior year, only to find out that a player had been ruled ineligible, meaning that the team had to retroactively forfeit some of its conference games. Instead of the playoffs and a chance at a state title, the Seminole High squad played in a lesser, hastily put-together bowl game. He scored the winning touchdown, but it was still unfulfilling. "That was probably, at that point in my life, the lowest that a high school senior could ever imagine," Raines says.
It would get worse before it got better. Raines' first full big-league season, 1981, saw the Expos reach the playoffs. Montreal faced the Dodgers in the then-best-of-five National League Championship Series. In the first inning of the fifth game, Raines led off with a double off Fernando Valenzuela and then scored two batters later. But the Dodgers would tie it in the top of the fifth, then take the lead in the top of the ninth on a legendary, devastating home run by Rick Monday. Despite putting two runners on base in the bottom of the ninth, Jerry White swung at Bob Welch's first pitch and Davey Lopes was just barely able to get the ball to first in time to clinch the pennant for the Dodgers.
Raines insists that if the ball had gotten through, or if White could have beat out the throw, the Expos would have won the game, the pennant and eventually the World Series. But you can forgive him for thinking that the Expos -- loaded with stars such as Dawson, Carter and others -- would be regulars in October. Instead, it would be his only postseason series in Montreal.
The next year, he would fall under the spell of cocaine, nearly destroying his career before it really got started. But he was able to ask for the help he needed, checking into rehab to get a firmer grip on his life on and off the field. And when he joined the White Sox after the 1990 season, the elusive championship seemed closer than ever. The 1993 team reached the playoffs, losing in the ALCS to the Blue Jays. In Raines' eyes, though, 1994 looked like the year it would finally come together on the South Side. But the season fell off a cliff when the players went on strike (ironically enough, before the season ended prematurely, the Expos were the popular favorite to win it all).
"Every year that went by, I was losing. I was running out of time," Raines says. "By the time I went to the Yankees in 1996, it was my 16th season. The clock was ticking. How much longer was I going to play?"
Once again, the wait proved a bit longer than expected. Raines broke a finger before the 1996 team broke camp for New York, forcing him to miss the first few weeks of the season. Then he suffered a hamstring injury rounding first base, which caused him to miss even more time. "I had gotten myself into a situation where I couldn't even stay healthy," he says. "I felt like I couldn't help the team." Raines' huge September made him feel like a part of the squad, though, and when Charlie Hayes lingered under the foul pop that would finally earn Raines a championship, he couldn't help but think about all the time that had passed.
"It felt like a dream," he recalls. "I remember just watching my other teams' last outs being made, and guys storming the field. And never having the opportunity to do that. But it was right there, right before my eyes. This was happening."
Raines would earn another ring with the Yankees in 1998, playing in 109 games and batting .290 for the team that would win 125 total games and breeze to its second title in three years. "It was the biggest part of my career," Raines says. "Because of winning. I wanted to win championships. I was in Montreal for 13 years, and we went to the playoffs once, in my first year. I felt like after that year, there were going to be many, many times when we would make the playoffs, and eventually, one of these days, we'd get to the World Series and win."
It would happen eventually. Raines just had to be patient.
A Call from the Hall
Raines retired after the 2002 season, then debuted on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2008. It wasn't until the 2013 ballot that he broke the 50 percent mark. But when the Hall dropped the eligibility from 15 years to 10 after the 2014 election, Raines was far from a guarantee to earn a plaque.
His good friend Dawson, who was inducted in 2010, would call him every year, telling him not to get discouraged. "Homey, don't worry about it, man," the Hawk would tell him. "It's a process." But Raines would watch the numbers and get uncomfortable. He would see the gains, and wonder if they would be enough to eventually crack the 75 percent threshold before his eligibility ran out.
Fortunately, Jonah Keri was on the case.
Keri was 6 years old when Raines was a rookie, and the attachment never faded. Year after year, when the Hall's newest balloting results would be announced, and another induction ceremony would take place without Raines, Keri would become more determined -- and more vocal -- about stumping for his childhood hero. The single-minded campaign was laudable and often amusing in its vigor.
Keri would regularly file articles discussing new reasons to vote for Raines. He would reach out to writers personally, trying to change their votes. He spoke about it on his podcast. He would, he admits, occasionally have some Twitter fun at the expense of "no" voters. But for most of the time, Raines says he didn't even know about his own personal one-man advocacy group.
That changed a few years ago, when Keri introduced Raines before a group of fans trying to bring baseball back to Montreal. Keri started down his usual path, a spiel highlighting achievements that Raines, himself, didn't even know he had done. "And I'm like, 'Who is this guy? How does he know so much about me?'" Raines laughs. "We had never met. But he said he was a big fan. And after we met, we became friends. I said, 'Dude, I've got to get to know you. You know too much about me, and I have no idea who you are!' And we became friends after that. But you can't know that much about me, and me not know a thing about you."
The long road finally led to mid-January of this year, at long last the day that Raines (and Keri) dreamed of. "We were just sitting around, hoping that the phone would ring," Raines said on MLB Network later that night. Deep down, he had to know that he was getting in; in the month leading up the announcement, he could see the ballots being released online, and he knew that he probably had already flipped enough voters to make it a fait accompli. But he couldn't take anything for granted -- not in his last shot. He didn't sleep the night before.
For so many years, the phone hadn't rung; his dreams delayed for at least another 12 months. And there was literally nothing that he could do to change it. There weren't any more bases to steal or home runs to hit. Raines' career numbers weren't changing.
So Raines sat and waited with his wife and daughters. And at long last, BBWAA secretary-treasurer Jack O'Connell called with the news. Raines, with 86 percent of the vote -- 380 votes out of 442 -- would get a plaque in Cooperstown.
"It's been a long time. It's been a process for me," Raines said during a news conference at New York's St. Regis Hotel the next day, sitting alongside his fellow inductees Jeff Bagwell and Ivan Rodriguez. "My 10th year, my last year of eligibility. The writers finally got it right." Everyone in the room laughed, no one harder than Raines himself. "I've been thinking about this for a long time. When this first started, I had black hair -- a lot of hair. Now, my beard is so white, my kids call me Santa. And I have no hair."
He Earned It
Raines returned to Yankee Stadium as a member of the Oakland A's in August of 1999. He was suffering from lupus, but he made the trip to New York to see his old teammates and receive his 1998 World Series ring in an on-field ceremony. Raines walked from the visitors dugout to home plate, where manager Joe Torre was waiting with a box.
He handed it to his former left fielder, who opened it up, looked inside, and saw … nothing. After a brief but agonizing few seconds, the players emerged from the dugout, cracking up. "Derek Jeter was the ringleader," Raines suspects, still not totally certain. "And I never did much to him, even though he was a rookie.
"I was pretty much the prankster of the team, so they figured they'd get me back. And they got me back good."
For almost two decades, Raines had made sport of pranking his teammates. The payback was most appropriate. Tim Raines would eventually get all that he had coming to him. He had earned that ring, just as he had earned all of the accolades over his career, just as he earned the chance to play for championships, just as he earned big, life-changing contracts, just as he'd eventually earn his own, permanent spot in Cooperstown. Like all those other tributes, honors and awards, Raines would get what was his.
He just had to wait a bit.
Jon Schwartz is the deputy editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the New York Yankees 2017 Official Spring Training Program. The New York Yankees 2017 Official Spring Training Program is an official Yankees publication. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.