Baines' hit show continues to run, even if hobbled DH can't

UNCHECKED SWING

April 19, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

He could have been Billy Williams. That's what Roland Hemond says. Same left-handed swing. Same all-around talent. Williams played 18 seasons. Finished with a .290 career batting average, 2,711 hits, 426 home runs. Made the Hall of Fame.

But Harold Baines isn't Billy Williams. Not after undergoing six knee operations. Not after becoming a designated hitter in 1987. Not after playing most of his career at the old Comiskey Park, where it was 352 feet down the right-field line.

The big park robbed him of home runs. The knees robbed him of his ability to play the outfield, hundreds of at-bats and maybe a chance at the Hall of Fame. Baines' statistics are nearly at that level, and at the age of 35, he remains one of the most dangerous hitters in the game.

Entering this season, only 28 players in major-league history had as many home runs (261) and a career batting average (.288) as high as Baines. Of those, 20 are enshrined in Cooperstown, and Eddie Murray is a lock to join them after he retires.

Baines? He's 136 homers short of 400, 924 hits short of 3,000. Reaching either number likely would result in his induction, but the odds are against him. His knees are in such bad shape, every game is a risk, and every season threatens to be his last.

Yet, Baines asks no sympathy. In fact, he sees himself as fortunate, not the reverse. He's still playing, isn't he? Ask him how his career might have turned out if his knees had stayed strong, and he turns on the question as if it were a hanging curveball.

"It could be the other way around if I had good knees," Baines says. "[The injuries] have made me work harder off the field, made me more disciplined. After the knee operations, I had to change my approach. I had a family to raise. I didn't have any other skills outside of playing baseball."

Knees are cut above

Six arthroscopic surgeries -- four on his right knee, two on his left. Orioles trainer Richie Bancells says Baines' knees "are about as bad as you can get." But since his first operation, at the end of the '86 season, Baines has driven in more than 500 runs.

The other night, he ripped Tom Henke for a pinch-hit, bases-loaded triple, and afterward the veteran Texas reliever said, "He's the best hitter on that team." Orioles first base coach Davey Lopes seconds that opinion, calling Baines "the most feared guy in our lineup."

Hemond, general manager when the White Sox made Baines the first pick of the 1977 draft, only wonders what might have been. He tried to acquire Baines from the White Sox in the summer of '89, and then again from Texas that winter. He finally succeeded in January '93, but in a sense it was too late.

Not for the Orioles -- Baines' .313 average last season was the highest of his 14-year career, and this season he's batting .400 with three homers and nine RBIs. But what if Hemond had succeeded in acquiring Baines for Jeff Ballard, Jose Bautista and a third player in the '89 off-season? What if Baines had played the past four years at cozy Memorial Stadium and Camden Yards?

These are the questions that Hemond asks, the questions that never will be answered. Hemond says he was "real close" to completing the three-for-one trade with Texas in '89. But the Rangers balked with Ballard coming off elbow surgery -- the right move, as it turned out, for Ballard's career was never the same.

Baines can't complain -- he wound up playing for two division champions in Oakland, and his statistics didn't exactly suffer. He hasn't had a 500-at-bat season since 1989, yet he has built career numbers nearly identical to Cal Ripken's and comparable to Paul Molitor's at the same stage.

Ripken, a shortstop with the second-longest consecutive-games streak in major-league history, is a certain Hall of Famer. Molitor, nearly three years older than Baines, is closing in on 3,000 hits. That probably would be enough to send him to Cooperstown, even though he has spent the past four seasons as a first baseman and DH.

Baines is simply one of the most productive hitters of his era. He almost always hits for a higher average with men on base than with the bases empty. The past nine seasons, he has batted .301 with men in scoring position. And since 1980, Murray, Andre Dawson and Dave Winfield are the only players with more RBIs.

Earlier in his career, he also was a solid outfielder with decent speed and a strong arm. "He probably never would have been traded from the White Sox if he didn't have knee problems," Hemond said. "The way he hits, he still would be a regular. He would have accumulated a lot of productive years."

Unsung hero

Instead, he became a DH who occasionally needs days off. Baines helped carry the Orioles in the pennant race last season, hitting 15 of his 20 homers after the All-Star break, batting .359 after Aug. 18. But he's so quiet, Texas GM Tom Grieve calls him "probably one of the better players no one ever hears about."

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