Groovin' at 40

Baines: At age 40, the Orioles' mild-mannered DH has been doing it for 20 seasons, but his bat is smoking like never before.

July 22, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Harold Baines speaks a little louder than a monotone whisper, soft enough not to disturb a sleeping infant, reserved enough not to give away any secrets.

For 20 years this has served him well. Until now. At 40, the Orioles' designated hitter is constructing a career season. Already, he has eclipsed last year's 57 RBIs and more than doubled his nine home runs. Baines would be satisfied to play out the rest of his career a few hours away from his Eastern Shore roots, preferably with the Orioles going to a World Series and preferably with as little notice as possible. So much for wishes.

With the Orioles' playoff hopes trashed and the front office seeking a renovation by July 31, many believe it fitting that Baines be traded to a contender. Baines, however, is not among them.

"I'd rather stay here," he says. "It's a great bunch of guys. Sure, we've struggled. But anything in life involves a struggle. We still have 2 1/2 months. Hopefully, we can turn it around."

As strong as Baines' desire is to end his career in his home state, the Orioles could conceivably trade him this summer, then re-sign him as a free agent after the season. He'd still be one of the game's best bargains.

Within an $84 million clubhouse, he has accepted a lower rung on the Orioles' financial ladder with a $1.5 million, one-year contract. Manager Ray Miller, for one, has advocated that Baines be signed to a multi-year deal after this season because he is so confident Baines' dignity will not allow him to press on if he becomes unproductive.

Productivity is certainly not a question yet. Sitting on 21 home runs, Baines is a threat to spoil one of the game's best trivia questions: Name the active player with the most home runs who has never hit 30 in any season.

"I've just centered the ball in those 21 situations. I'm the type hitter who has to hit the ball perfectly to hit a home run. I've had 21 perfect swings," he says flatly. "I don't have the [Mark] McGwire swing that can overpower a baseball or [Mike] Piazza's strength to overpower a baseball. My unorthodox swing has to be perfect. I do a lot of things to make my swing work."

Influenced heavily by the late hitting guru Charley Lau, Baines adapted his "unorthodox" swing early in his career with the Chicago White Sox. He developed a high leg kick to initiate his stride. His head barely moves during his swing. Although it's supposed to be an impossible feat, Baines says he has seen bat hit ball.

"The longer you see the ball, the more chance you have to hit it," Baines says. "When I'm seeing the ball well, I can track it all the way into the catcher's mitt."

"What's most impressive about him is how often he hits the ball on the barrel of the bat," says teammate B. J. Surhoff. "Left field, center field, right field. It doesn't matter where he hits the ball; he's hitting it hard somewhere. Very rarely does he loop a single somewhere. He drives it.

"Plus, he's able to trust himself, which is very important as a hitter. He trusts his hands, so he never looks like he's rushing after the ball."

A swing to be studied

Teammates and opponents alike draw near the batting cage when Baines is inside. It is the unspoken compliment, afforded relatively few hitters.

"Harold has always had a great idea of what to do at the plate," says New York Yankees third baseman Scott Brosius, a former teammate of Baines' with the Oakland Athletics. "He handles the outside part of the plate really well. He goes into every at-bat with a sound idea of what he wants to do. I've seen him pass up a fastball down the middle of the plate and then hit a breaking ball and vice versa. He's not up there simply hacking."

There is little hack in what Baines does.

Ever since White Sox owner Bill Veeck spotted him swinging in St. Michaels and vowed that he would one day play for his team, Baines' gifts have been obvious. Knee injuries have long since robbed him of his speed but have not smudged either his desire for the game or his graceful, synchronized swing.

`A craftsman and an artist'

"I don't say this about many hitters, but Harold has a beautiful swing," says Orioles hitting coach Terry Crowley, known as the King of Swing before he retired in 1983 with the team's all-time pinch-hit record (108). "He's a craftsman and an artist both. He is also one of the most observant players I've been around. During a game, he's on the bench taking everything in. Absolutely nothing gets past him."

Miller calls Baines "the ultimate professional hitter" and last week said, "He'll hit until he's 50." No one argues.

"I've been able to maintain my style of hitting for most of my career," Baines says. "Hitting is about getting breaks, too. You can hit the ball and not get hits. You've got to be a little lucky."

Baines stands on August's doorstep during the winter of his career. If he was thought to be hanging on last season, what about now?

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