In the fall of 1975, dozens of members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America picked up their office mail to find a familiar yellow citrus.
The fruit packages, accompanied by a letter and detailed statistics, were care of a group calling itself the Wahoo Club of Cleveland. They were meant to bolster the Hall of Fame case for Indians pitcher Bob Lemon.
He entered the following year.
Just over a decade ago, the same community of scribes came under bombardment with information about veteran hurler Bert Blyleven. The data were compiled by a California investment manager and baseball nut called Rich Lederer.
Blyleven was inducted in 2011 and immediately thanked Lederer, a man he’d never met.
In order to get, first you must ask, and it never hurts when someone builds a rock-solid argument.
It helps to have allies. Blyleven’s unofficial campaign also involved Bill Hillsman, a long-time Minnesota political consultant.
Which brings us to former Montreal Expos great Tim Raines.
The left-fielder known as Rock is in his 10th and final year on the Hall of Fame ballot and all indications are he will – at last – be able to unveil his bronze plaque in Cooperstown, N.Y., this summer.
According to public and anonymous Hall of Fame ballots analyzed by vote tracker Ryan Thibodeaux, as of the Dec. 31 deadline Raines already has the 20 “flips” – votes from writers who previously didn’t support him – he needed to reach the 75-per-cent threshold.
It’s been a slog, and, should the accomplishment be confirmed, it will be due in no small measure to those who have quietly and not-so-quietly boosted Raines’s candidacy.
Many voices have been instrumental – a Montreal-born number cruncher who goes by the nom de guerre Tom Tango (now of MLB Advanced Media), Jay Jaffe of Sports Illustrated and Brian Kenny of the MLB Network to name just three – but few more so than baseball writer Jonah Keri, the author of a well-received 2014 book on the Expos, and radio personality Matthew Ross.
Keri recently quipped that when and if a Raines victory party is held “Ross and I will probably be the guys who have to rent the room and pick up the booze.”
Both are native Montrealers – Keri now lives in the United States and works for CBS Sports, Ross is host of a weekly show on TSN Radio and founded Expos Nation, a fan group – and both were burgeoning seamheads when Raines broke into the majors in 1979.
Neither man is in any way interested in claiming credit, but the fact remains the loosely knit campaign supporting Raines, which started almost nine years ago, has been determined, orchestrated and increasingly vast.
It has featured face-to-face persuasion, regular and lengthy e-mails to selected Hall voters, even a Twitter account that makes a point of highlighting every mention of support and thanking whoever made it (Raines does occasionally tweet himself, but the account is largely administered by supporters).
In 2015, when former Expo pitcher Pedro Martinez got into Cooperstown, the pro-Raines crowd didn’t miss the opportunity to work various rooms on behalf of their guy.
The remarkable thing, when you consider the numbers, is that any arm-twisting has been required at all.
“When you dig beyond the surface, Tim Raines and [first-ballot Hall of Fame outfielder] Tony Gwynn are basically the same player,” Keri said. “It’s not a close call or in any way a marginal candidacy.”
So why wouldn’t voters recognize it?
“Well, [Raines] didn’t get to 3,000 hits ... it’s a feel test and, if you don’t have that milestone, it’s hard for some voters to get there,” Keri said. “Never mind that he reached base almost 4,000 times. He also stole more than 800 bases, which only four other people have done, and all of them are in the Hall.”
That Raines overlapped with Rickey Henderson – the best lead-off man of all-time, just ask him – is surely a hindrance, as is the fact he played his prime in out-of-the-way Montreal.
But Raines was a far more efficient base-stealer than Henderson, and had a higher career batting average (and OPS).
A decent argument can be made that between 1981 and 1990 he was the best player in the National League – better than his Hall of Fame buddy Andre Dawson and players such as Mike Schmidt and Dale Murphy.
He won two World Series rings later in his career, and was beloved as a teammate everywhere he played. Added Ross: “People like to raise the cocaine problem early in his career, but he admitted it, kicked it and then stayed clean. He also came back from Lupus. How come nobody ever talks about that?”
Baseball is fundamentally anachronistic as a sport, so it follows that its Hall of Fame procedures are something of a relic, as well.
In the past, lobbying aggressively on one’s own behalf simply wasn’t done.
There’s a long-standing belief Chicago Cubs legend Ron Santo’s consecration was delayed three decades for that very reason – the former third baseman was elevated in 2012, the year after he died, by the veterans’ committee, after years of cheerleading from people including former U.S. senator Dick Durbin of Illinois.
Until last year, the BBWAA allowed anyone who had spent 10 years on the baseball beat to have a Hall of Fame vote for life.
The practice incentivized grudges by the people Boston great Ted Williams memorably derided as “maestros of the keyboard,” and meant voters included many who hadn’t followed the game closely in years.
The arbitrary 10-year requirement remains in place, but now voters who haven’t covered the game regularly in the past decade no longer receive ballots.
And as of 2018 there will be a requirement the 400 or so Hall of Fame ballots cast each year be – gasp! – made public.
“I think it’s definitely helped Raines that there’s been a bit of a demographic shift in the voters, who tend to be getting more receptive to analytic arguments,” Keri said.
Some of that is also down to improved metrics and to technology. As Lederer, whose father was a longtime BBWAA member, has said: “without [the Internet], I wouldn’t have a voice.”
Suspense remains for the class of 2017, which will be unveiled Jan. 18.
Three players are virtual locks: Raines, infielder Jeff Bagwell, and catcher Ivan (Pudge) Rodriguez.
This year’s ballot also features two other former Expos: outfielder Vladimir Guerrero, who has an outside shot in his first year on the ballot, and Larry Walker, who has a stronger case than Guerrero’s based on the numbers, but will fall short again.
Pitcher Trevor Hoffman and designated hitter Edgar Martinez are maybes. Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, obvious Hall of Famers, who remain controversial choices because of their admitted history of doping, stand a chance.
Raines, who couldn’t be reached for comment, has previously suggested reaching Cooperstown – where he would arrive in an Expos cap – would likely mean more to his family than it does to him.
It would also constitute the baseball world official recognizing something his fans already believe: He is one of the greatest players in history to step onto a diamond.Report Typo/Error