Same, old Baines even better with age

O's DH back in swing after big 1999 season

March 14, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Everything about him is the same: the tilt of the head, the fluid brevity of the swing, the reluctance to discuss himself in any depth.

Harold Baines is back for a third tour with the Orioles and it's as if he never left. Batting fifth yesterday as -- what else? -- designated hitter, Baines touched up Los Angeles Dodgers dominator Kevin Brown for a fourth-inning home run, his second of the spring.

"He's got the same swing," said Orioles manager Mike Hargrove, whose playing career overlapped Baines' for six seasons. "Obviously, there's a different approach. He's a lot older. There are certain things he understands about being productive at the plate that he wasn't able to use 10 or 15 years ago. He's had a pretty good career."

Baseball's active RBI leader (1,583) and seventh-leading home run hitter (373), Baines constructed a breakout year for the Orioles last season, averaging an RBI every 4.3 at-bats and pounding 24 home runs in 107 games before moving in a late-season trade. He has become a stealth Hall of Fame candidate and a quiet force within the game's most veteran clubhouse. Long overlooked because of his tenure with chronic second-division teams, he has become a hitting equivalent to Don Sutton, short on the spectacular but unmatched for consistency.

Just don't ask him about it.

Baines is loath to discuss his accomplishments or his understated pursuit of 400 home runs, 3,000 hits and the possible Hall of Fame election that might result.

"I'm no different than 90 percent of players who don't give [the Hall of Fame] a thought," said Baines, disregarding the math that says 90 percent of players have no reason to consider it.

Asked about his lifetime achievements, Baines insists that he will make time for reflection only when his career of consistency is done. Only left fielder B. J. Surhoff can draw a subtle boast from the man who has defined his position more than any of his predecessors. Leafing through a preseason publication, Surhoff notes that Baines is ranked only fifth by the magazine among designated hitters. Baines glances up and asks without inflection, "So who are they chasin'?"

Baines' ability to observe the nuances of a game is often compared to that of his first base coach, Eddie Murray. Both men have made a science out of noticing tendencies and quietly exploiting them.

Of last year's seeming resurgence, Baines said only: "I give my best shot and let my ability take over. Last year, I had some pitches over the plate and the opportunity to drive in some runs. As a hitter, that's all you want. Everything fell together."

Now the game's oldest position player -- he turns 41 tomorrow -- Baines was once an above-average outfielder with the Chicago White Sox before 1987, when creaky knees forced him to a specialist's role. As a designated hitter, Baines is the game's all-time leader in games played (1,549), hits (1,608), home runs (224) and RBIs (933), having passed Hal McRae and Don Baylor. His position and quiet personality have conspired to cloak his production.

"Every year they say he's too old to play, and last year he goes out and hits over .300 [.312] with more than 100 RBIs [103]. He's in great shape. He's a great hitter," Hargrove said.

Should he stay healthy -- a condition that prefaces virtually every assessment of him -- Baines could get the 27 home runs and 217 hits he needs to join the 400/3,000 club in two years.

"I don't like talking about it. That's not my focus right now," Baines said. "My focus is to get a ring. The numbers will take care of themselves as long as you can perform. I want a ring."

Baines has reached the postseason five times, including last year after his August trade to the Cleveland Indians for two pitching prospects. However, his chance to participate in a second World Series and win a first world championship evaporated when the Indians blew a two-game lead against the Boston Red Sox in the American League Division Series.

Again, a look back is unappealing. Baines acknowledges the disappointment but adds that he never prodded the team to trade him despite its fourth-place standing.

However, the Orioles were able to benefit twice from Baines last season. He batted .322 with 24 home runs and 81 RBIs and earned his first All-Star Game selection since 1991 before being traded to Cleveland for minor-leaguers Juan Aracena and Jimmy Hamilton. Aracena immediately was considered one of the organization's top arms. Baines, a St. Michael's native, merely filed for free agency after the season, waited for the call from majority owner Peter Angelos and returned home for a $2 million, one-year contract.

Baseball and its broadcast rights-holders increasingly celebrate the chest-thumping, finger-pointing, pitcher-taunting home run hitters. Baines has never been one of those, instead constructing a career befitting his mind-set. Only Hall of Famer Al Kaline has more than Baines' 373 career home runs without a 30-homer season. Last year's 103 RBIs marked only the third time in his 20 seasons -- and the first time since 1985 -- that he had reached triple digits. During the same season in which Baines amassed a .533 slugging average, he also led the American League in pinch RBIs (8) with only 16 pinch at-bats.

"The best compliment I ever got was about how I play the game," he said. "That's what's important to me. I hear it every year, and it means a lot to me."

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