Sunday, January 22, 2017

Card #30: Hall of Famer Tim Raines

Card #30: Tim Raines
1987: .330, 18 HRs, 68 RBIs, 50 SBs, 123 runs scored, .429 OBP, .526 SLG

Of all the iconic performances produced by baseball players in 1987, none were more impressive — or more important to a player’s legacy — than Tim Raines cramming the best season of his life into a five-month span, a zenith that continues to resonate 30 years later. 

“I think it really played a big role,” Raines said Wednesday night, shortly after he learned he’d been elected to the Hall of Fame in his 10th and final year on the ballot. 

Despite not debuting until May 2 — he was one of the many free agents who returned to his 1986 club but had to sit out April after choosing not to sign a below-market contract at the height of the Collusion Era — Raines ended up setting career-highs in homers, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and stolen base percentage (91 percent) while leading the National League in runs scored.

“The things that I accomplished that year — especially after missing spring training and the first month, you know, that year, I didn’t see a major league pitcher from the end of September until April — I don’t think (anyone) expected that from me that year,” Raines said. “I don’t even know if I expected to do things I ended up doing that year.”

If anything, Raines undersold the rustiness he’d accumulated by his 1987 debut. Raines signed a three-year deal with the Expos on May 1 and played in an extended spring training league game hours later, when he said he batted leadoff in every inning and collected five hits and “ … stole about four or five bases.”

Afterward, the Expos sent Raines to New York, where Montreal was facing the Mets. Raines, already a veteran of 882 major league games, knew he was heading into an uncertainty unlike any he’d ever experienced.

“I wasn’t really sure where I was as far as playing — and was I ready to compete at the major league level, especially after it had been a month into the season?” Raines said. “I was just getting started without spring training, so I think that was the most nervous I’ve ever been.”

Raines said he took about 50 swings during batting practice and “ … might have hit two or three balls out of the cage.” But whatever nerves Raines had disappeared when he stepped into the batter’s box for real in the first inning and tripled on the first pitch he saw from Mets starter David Cone.

“It kind of made me kind of relax (and say) OK, I was into the game,” Raines said. “Wasn’t sure what was going to happen the rest of the game.”

What happened was Raines, performing in front of 37,235 fans at Shea Stadium and millions more watching the NBC “Game of the Week,” went 4-for-5 with three runs scored, a stolen base and a grand slam off Jesse Orosco in the 11th inning that lifted the Expos to an 11-7 win. 

The decisive homer left Vin Scully and Joe Garagiola flabbergasted in the broadcast booth.

“That has to be one of the most incredible stories of the year in any sport,” Scully said. “The first day back!”

“That has to be one of those stories — if you wrote it for television, they’d say ‘That’s too corny, it’ll never work,” Garagiola said. “Can you imagine that?”

The dramatics were just beginning for Raines, whose 123 runs scored were the ninth-most of the decade and the most scored by anyone who played fewer than 140 games. His stolen base percentage was the sixth-best of the 1980s and the second-best by anyone who swiped at least 50 bases.

Raines had his second singular moment of the season on July 14, when he capped one of the most memorable All-Star Games in history by hitting the tie-breaking two-run triple in the 13th inning to give the National League a 2-0 win. In keeping with the theme of the season, Raines didn’t start the game but went 3-for-3 after entering the game in the sixth inning— no other player had more than one hit — in earning MVP honors. 

It was the last All-Star Game for Raines, whose age-27 season proved to be the last of his peak years. He remained a solid regular for the Expos and White Sox from 1988 through 1995 and was a valuable role player on the Yankees’ World Series-winning teams in 1996 and 1998 before a battle with lupus cut short his 1999 season with the Athletics and forced him to miss the 2000 season. Raines came back with the Expos in 2001 and spent his final two seasons as a pinch-hitter with three teams.

It appeared as if Raines’ long “wind-down” phase might obscure his era of dominance and keep him out of the Hall of Fame, especially when the Hall reduced a player’s time on the ballot from 15 years to 10 years in 2014. But that change following Raines’ seventh year on the ballot created an urgency for his candidacy, and he went from 46.1 percent of the vote in 2014 to 86 percent this year — 86 percent of the vote for a guy whose 1987 season will get the anniversary treatment it warrants in the months leading up to his induction.

“That year to me, out of all the years I played, that year was probably the most special year out of the 23,” Raines said.

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