Claim to fame: In the 1980s, Raines may have been the National League’s answer to Rickey Henderson. Raines led the league in stolen bases 1981-1984 and had 578 of his 808 career steals in the decade. He also made seven consecutive All Star teams and, together with Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, and others, helped make the Montreal Expos contenders. Raines declined in the ’90s and was a role player by the end, though he remains popular among baseball researchers.
Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Raines has made three appearances on the Cooperstown ballot for the Baseball Writers Association of America, reaching a high of 30.4 percent of the vote this year. He has 12 more tries with the writers.
Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? In a word, yes. Together with Lou Brock and Henderson, Raines rates among the best base thieves ever. I devoted one of these columns in June to another stolen base champ, Maury Wills, and I said that before Wills goes in, Raines must be honored first. After all, Wills is 19th on the career steals list while Raines is 5th and has the most steals of anyone not in Cooperstown.
Raines also scored the fourth-most runs of any eligible ballplayer not enshrined, and he finished with 2,605 hits and a .294 batting average. Imagine if instead of sitting the Yankee bench in later years, Raines started for a lesser team and made 3,000 hits. He’d have been a first ballot selection, no question– since 1952, no eligible player with 3,000 hits has failed to make it on his first try.
Who knows when Raines will get a plaque, though? Tom Verducci wrote in a Sports Illustrated piece in January that ’80s stars like Dale Murphy, Jack Morris, and Raines may lose their opportunity as many recent greats become eligible.
In 17 years I never have voted for a player who did not eventually make the Hall of Fame. I fear Raines might be the first. He was the greatest offensive weapon in his league in his prime, once scoring an NL-record 19.6 percent of his Montreal team’s runs. He was a better player than Lou Brock (easily; look it up) and reached base more times and scored more runs than Tony Gwynn. He stole bases nearly at will — succeeding on 85 percent of 954 attempts. He is harmed as a candidate by issues that have nothing to do with his greatness: a low profile in Montreal, part-time roles in New York and Chicago, and two player strikes, especially in 1981, when his rate of stolen bases (71 in 88 games) put him on pace for the glory Rickey Henderson received the next year for smashing Brock’s record of 118.
Raines’ candidacy also was probably hurt by a drug problem. Ken Burns noted in his Baseball series that Raines said he “always slid headfirst because he didn’t want to break the cocaine vials he kept in his pants pockets.” As I wrote about Dave Parker, if a minority player is perceived to have character issues, his chances of making Cooperstown plummet.
I’ve thought for a while that Raines is a guy who, maybe more than any other upcoming Hall of Fame candidate, would benefit from some sabermetric types with a bit of mainstream exposure talking up his credentials, similar to what has happened with Bert Blyleven.
History would suggest Raines has slim odds with the writers. Of the 67 players the BBWAA has enshrined since modern voting procedures were instituted in June 1967, Raines received more votes his third year on the ballot than just seven men: Luis Aparicio, Lou Boudreau, Ralph Kiner, Bob Lemon, Joe Medwick, Duke Snider, and Bruce Sutter.
Then again, Blyleven got 17.4 percent of the vote his third year and didn’t crack 30 percent until his seventh year. Something has happened since, and it appears Blyleven may get a call for Cooperstown in January. So perhaps Raines has a chance. But I’m guessing Raines’ honors will come from the Veterans Committee, which has tapped many players with inferior career numbers and far less support from the BBWAA.
Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here.
Others in this series: Al Oliver, Albert Belle, Bert Blyleven, Cecil Travis, Chipper Jones, Dan Quisenberry, Dave Parker, Don Mattingly, Don Newcombe, George Steinbrenner, Maury Wills, Mel Harder, Pete Browning, Rocky Colavito, Steve Garvey, Thurman Munson