LAS VEGAS – Harold Baines answered the phone and learned he was a Hall of Famer.
“Very shocked,” he admitted.
So were many others around the baseball world.
In fact, in the hours after his selection by a Hall-picked panel was announced Sunday at the Mandalay Bay resort, a lot of conversations at the winter meetings started the exact same way: “Harold Baines?”
No one doubted Baines was a top player – a six-time All-Star with 1,628 RBIs, 384 home runs and 2,866 hits.
“I had a great career. I’m very proud of it,” he said.
But a couple of other numbers stood out, too.
Baines never drew more than 6.1 percent in five elections by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, far from the 75 percent required. In the key WAR stat compiled by baseballreference.com, Baines’ lifetime total was tied for 545th.
Behind the likes of Placido Polanco, Jim Sundberg and Rafael Furcal in wins above replacement, not to mention Gil Hodges, Dick Allen, Don Mattingly, John Olerud and dozens more.
The vote by the Today’s Game Era Committee was sure to spark renewed cries of cronyism at Cooperstown. Especially because the 16-member panel appointed by the Hall board included longtime Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf.
“I’m glad he was on that committee this year to help me to get into the Hall of Fame,” Baines said.
Baines spent nearly all of his first 10 seasons with the White Sox and currently serves as a team ambassador in their community relations department.
“So happy for Harold. He’s a great player and a great human being,” Reinsdorf praised in a statement. “I am so honored that I was a member of the committee. He deserved to be in long ago. I am just so excited.”
“Not only was Harold one of my favorite players to watch, but I have nothing but admiration for him as a player and as a human being,” he said.
Tony La Russa, Baines’ first big league manager, also was on the panel that elected him.
In the past, Phil Rizzuto and Bill Mazeroski were among the players who benefited from friendly faces on Veterans Committees to reach the Hall. That panel has been revamped over the years, and the Today’s Game Era group was created as part of changes in 2014.
“The era committees were established as a sort of a court of appeals for an opportunity in the event that over time it was felt that maybe somebody slipped through the cracks,” Hall President Jeff Idelson said. “And in the case of someone who received 6 percent of the vote in the BBWAA election, the reason that may have happened could be for many, many reasons.”
It took 12 votes for election by the panel – longtime reliever Lee Smith was unanimous, Baines got 12 and former outfielder and manager Lou Piniella fell just short with 11.
George Steinbrenner, Orel Hershiser, Albert Belle, Joe Carter, Will Clark, Davey Johnson and Charlie Manuel all received fewer than five votes.
Baines, now 59, had a smooth, consistent, left-handed stroke. But he never finished higher than ninth in an MVP vote, and never was among the top five AL hitters in the yearly batting race. His single-season high was 29 home runs at a time when lots of players hit more.
As this vote approached, his name drew little-to-no buzz in debates over who might be selected.
“I wasn’t expecting this day to come,” the career .289 hitter said.
Mattingly said he was happy for Baines, calling him a great hitter.
The Miami manager was a six-time All-Star, won nine Gold Gloves at first base for the Yankees and hit .307 lifetime. Mattingly was the 1985 AL MVP and four times finished in the top seven of the MVP voting.
Mattingly had 2,153 hits, 222 home runs and 1,099 RBIs in 14 seasons in a career limited by back trouble.
“I just didn’t play long enough. Wasn’t able to stay healthy long enough to really put that pile of numbers together,” he said Monday at the winter meetings. “So there was a period of time that I could hit with anybody and do things on the field at my position and with the bat that nobody was doing.”
“When I think of myself, when you see Harold, played 22 years or something like that and you end up with a pile of numbers that grow and grow,” he said.
Baines became a designated hitter after knee trouble ended his days in the outfield, and DHs have struggled to gain backing from Hall voters.
Baines joined Frank Thomas as the only players in the Hall who spent more than half his games as a DH.
“Everything I hear or read is DH is really not part of the game, I guess. But I disagree. But maybe this will the open up the doors for some more DHs,” Baines said.
Both closers and DHs could see the numbers increase again very shortly.
Mariano Rivera is eligible for the first time and big-hitting DH Edgar Martinez will be back on the ballot when results of the next BBWAA election are announced Jan. 22.
Induction ceremonies are scheduled for July 21 at Cooperstown, New York.
Between now and then, there’s certain to be more discussion about who else should be in the Hall. Drug-tainted Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are on the upcoming BBWAA ballot, influential players’ union head Marvin Miller has been denied seven times by various committees, and steroids user Mark McGwire wasn’t among Sunday’s candidates.