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After slow burn, Tim Raines blazes his way into the Hall of Fame

It took 10 agonizing years on the ballot for one of the greatest leadoff hitters of all time to get the call to Cooperstown. So what changed? Here's what finally lit his Hall of Fame flame. Tom DiPace/AP Photo

He hasn't gotten a hit, scored a run or padded his glittering numbers in more than 14 years. So how amazing is it that on this stunning Wednesday evening in January 2017, the great Tim Raines finds himself celebrating his election to the Hall of Fame?

Let's step back and swirl this around our brains for a minute. When a man has this moment, after 10 agonizing years on the ballot, his election is obviously telling us something -- but not just about him.

If you really think this through, the big plot line on this night isn't merely the story of Raines' career. It's the ever-evolving story of how we view his career.

This isn't just about his Hall of Fame numbers. It's about how we perceive those numbers.

So this is the evening when perception and reality finally converged -- and allowed one of history's greatest leadoff hitters to complete a journey that very few previous Hall of Famers have ever traveled.

"This," Raines said Wednesday night, "was definitely the biggest day of my career."

Once upon a time, as recently as 2009, Tim Raines received just 22.6 percent of the vote. And you know what normally happens to players who get 22.6 percent -- in any election? Not a trip to the podium in Cooperstown, New York. That's for darned sure.

Ask Alan Trammell. Or Dale Murphy. Or Dave Parker. Or Don Mattingly. Or Lee Smith. They all got more than 22 percent of the vote in their day. Not one of them wound up having to write a joyful induction speech.

And that's just a snippet from a much longer list. Over the past 45 elections, take a guess at how many players got a percentage that low and still went on to get elected by the Baseball Writers' Association of America? That would be exactly three, not counting Raines: Bert Blyleven (2011), Don Drysdale (1984) and Duke Snider (1980).

Yet from the beginning, Raines somehow seemed different from the candidates who were keeping him company at the bottom of the ballot -- maybe because he had so many people in his corner who felt so strongly that he belonged in the Hall and weren't afraid to say so. Loudly.

"I truly never had one second where I had any doubt that his [vote] numbers would go up," said Raines' close friend, longtime teammate in Montreal and now fellow Hall of Famer, Andre Dawson. "I always felt like he was right there with the greatest leadoff hitters of all time."

Dawson even made it a point to plug Raines' case in his own induction speech in 2010. But five more frustrating elections came and went after that speech. And after all of them, Dawson said he kept telling Raines: "You don't get in before your time."

But why did it take so long for that time to arrive? We surveyed a number of voters who didn't vote for Raines until the last two years. They don't all have the same reasons for finally checking his box. But together, they've painted a revealing picture. Let's take a look:

He didn't have 'mainstream' numbers

"It takes a real appreciation of baseball," said former Expos general manager Murray Cook, "to understand what Tim Raines did."

So is that true? It seems like it. Raines was one of only four men since 1900 to steal 800-plus bases. He did that while compiling the highest stolen-base success rate (84.7 percent) of all time. And he was a leadoff on-base machine who had 10 seasons with an OBP of .390 or better. But apparently, those weren't the types of numbers voters were looking for a decade ago. And for voters searching for more traditional magic numbers, well, Raines wasn't their man.

"Back in the day," Raines said Wednesday, "when you looked at the Hall of Fame, you looked at 500 home runs, 300 wins and 3,000 hits. And a lot of times, if you didn't reach those criteria, it was kind of hard for anyone to look at you as a Hall of Famer."

He didn't quite get to 3,000 hits (finishing at 2,605). He didn't quite finish with a career batting average over .300 (winding up at .294). He didn't have the power numbers (170 homers) of the leadoff legend he was constantly compared with, Rickey Henderson. So in the early years, a giant chunk of the electorate viewed Raines as an excellent player, but not one who had done enough to earn their vote.

"I'd never been staunchly anti-Raines," said the Tampa Bay Times' Marc Topkin, who cast his first vote for Raines this year. "I just always felt he wasn't quite there. He was a very, very, very good player but not necessarily an all-time great. He had a period of dominance, but not quite long enough. He had some tremendous stats but was short of some of the arbitrary standards many of us use, whether we admit it or not."

Yes, but a funny thing happened over the course of the last decade: Those "arbitrary" standards began to change. More on that later.

He played north of the border

Unfortunately for Raines, the greatest years of his career were spent with a now-defunct franchise in a country not known as "the United States." And while it seems absurd to think that playing in Canada should have any effect on a man's Hall of Fame credentials, it clearly did.

Not just in Raines' case, either. It took Gary Carter six years to get elected to the Hall. It took Dawson nine. Vladimir Guerrero fell just short on his first year on the ballot, as well. That's your Montreal Expos Mount Rushmore right there.

No, there was no invisible force field at the border that prevented all Expos highlights from reaching the U.S. back in Raines' heyday. But this was still the 1980s, long before life-changing cable TV innovations that let you watch every team every night. So the Expos and Blue Jays got less air time than any other teams in baseball, because, well, ratings.

"It was just the fact that you were out of the country, playing across the border," Dawson said. "You were in the news. But literally, you weren't in the news."

You would think voters could look past that sort of thing. But writers who covered the American League back then admitted to us that they just about never saw Raines play as an Expo. And for whatever reason, what many voters see (or don't see) with their own eyeballs matters.

Could that have affected Raines more than any other Expo? Absolutely, said Jonah Keri, a longtime Raines fan who grew up in Montreal and now covers baseball for CBSSports.com. After all, Dawson's Hall of Fame case had help -- from that MVP award he won as a Cub. Carter won a World Series as a beloved Met. Guerrero earned himself an MVP trophy as an Angel.

"But Raines' case was almost only as an Expo," Keri said. "All those other guys needed that boost they got from playing for those other teams. But Raines didn't have that boost."

He was a victim of the Rule of 10

The purists out there would say that if you're a true Hall of Famer, you shouldn't be affected by the Rule of 10. Ha. Easy for them to say.

Those of us who vote know all too well that the arbitrary 10-player limit on votes we can cast each year is a rule that has had unintended consequences. And the worst of those unintended consequences is the squeeze it has put on a bunch of candidates who weren't automatic first-ballot Hall of Famers: Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling, Larry Walker, Fred McGriff, Gary Sheffield, Jeff Kent ... and Raines.

In an era of overcrowded ballots, packed with qualified candidates and complicated by PED-era players who never got elected or fell off the ballot, we guarantee that the Rule of 10 suppressed Raines' vote totals. We know because several voters told us.

"In 2014, 2015, 2016, I voted 10 guys, and Raines didn't make my cut," said one of those voters, the Associated Press's Rob Maaddi, "because of the ridiculous Rule of 10."

Maadi finally made a point to vote for Raines this year, in his final shot. Topkin says he did the same, thanks to the election of nine players over the previous three elections, which helped to "unclog" his ballot. Based on what we heard from voters like them, we can't help but think that Raines might have been elected years ago without the Rule of 10.

On the other hand, he might have been helped this year by another rule -- the Hall's abrupt decision in 2015 to cut players' presence on the ballot from 15 years to 10. At the time, Raines appeared to be the player who could be hurt most by that change. In the end, though, the urgency to vote for him now -- or never -- might have been what drove him over the top.

So what else changed besides that 10-year rule? Voters spelled that out for us, too.

He became the Bernie Sanders of Hall of Fame voting

You know what changed most dramatically during Raines' 10 years on the ballot? Not the player being voted on, obviously. It was the makeup of the group doing the voting.

As the electorate got younger, Raines' support got bigger. Go figure.

"You'd think the older voters would have been more inclined to vote for Tim Raines," Keri said. "But what ended up happening was, he has the youthful demographic behind him."

The truth is, the makeup of both the BBWAA and the pool of eligible voters has undergone a profound makeover in recent years: Fewer old-school newspaper writers, more new-age writers from the web and sabermetric community. And most significantly of all, more than 100 writers lost their right to vote because of another Hall rule change that lopped off older writers who hadn't "actively covered" baseball in more than a decade.

"I truly never had one second where I had any doubt that his [vote] numbers would go up. I always felt like he was right there with the greatest leadoff hitters of all time."

Andre Dawson

So what has that meant for Raines in particular? Turned out he was the ultimate new-school kind of guy.

"I think when you bring up the way they're doing stats today," Raines said, "it really opened up, I think, a lot of voters' minds. I mean, there are some things that I did that a lot of guys who are already in the Hall of Fame didn't actually do. So I think it kind of made them look at me a lot closer and they looked a lot deeper. And I think they more they looked, the better it turned out for me."

It was writers from that old school who looked at a candidate like him and didn't see those good old magic numbers that had fueled so many of their votes. But as those voters were replaced by that "youthful demographic," Raines' credentials were suddenly viewed through a whole different, Moneyball-era lens.

"Growing up, I loved Rickey Henderson and always admired Raines as sort of Rickey Lite," said ESPN's Scott Lauber, who cast his first Hall of Fame vote just last year and began voting for Raines immediately. "Then, when I became a Hall voter, I dug deeper into his numbers and discovered he was much, much more than that. In particular, the .385 career OBP stood out to me."

Is there any doubt that this sport and the people who cover it value on-base skills much more reverently now than they did a decade ago? Well, if you value on-base skills, it's hard not to be a Tim Raines fan.

  • Among players who started their career after World War II and got at least 4,000 plate appearances as a leadoff man, Raines is one of just four players with an OBP of .385 or better. The others: Wade Boggs, Henderson and Richie Ashburn -- all Hall of Famers.

  • Over the seven seasons from 1981 to 1987, Raines led the National League in singles, doubles, triples and walks. In other words, he was so good at reaching base, he led his league in pretty much every way it's possible to "reach base."

  • And what seals it for many voters is the list of slam-dunk Hall of Famers who got on base fewer times than Raines did: Lou Brock, Roberto Clemente, Roberto Alomar, Ernie Banks, Mike Schmidt and Tony Gwynn. Just to name a half-dozen.

  • If you noticed the name of Gwynn on that list, so did lots of voters. They made a point of mentioning it to us. Raines and Gwynn played in the same generation and had careers of nearly the same length. But even though Gwynn got 536 more hits and beat Raines in batting average by 44 points, Raines' ability to draw walks made their OBPs almost identical (.388 for Gwynn, .385 for Raines) -- and Raines' baserunning brilliance enabled him to reach scoring position so often, he scored almost 200 more runs than Gwynn.

So Raines' election is the best example yet of how differently all players are looked at now. Gwynn was a first-ballot lock. Raines had to sweat it out for 10 years to get elected. But he was rescued by an evolution in thinking -- an evolution that said: The value of these two great players was a lot closer than Gwynn's "magic numbers" once made us believe.

He gained the power of momentum

Raines also serves as a classic argument for the value of time. There's a reason players like this get 10 years on the ballot. Perspectives change. Voters change. Votes change.

So as Raines' more subtle numbers made it into heavier circulation and the voting ranks shifted, Raines' vote totals headed north so steadily, we could find almost no precedent for them. He spent two years in the 20-percentile group, two in the 30s, two in the 40s, two in the 50s and then jumped dramatically when those older voters got pushed out -- to 69.8 percent last year and 86 percent this year.

And as Raines added votes, year after year, that just led to more votes -- from voters who hadn't delved as deeply into his credentials earlier.

"I think, finally, that guys started really doing their homework and seeing the true importance that he had," Dawson said. "Especially the sabermetric guys. If you really sit back and bear down on all his numbers, they kind of wow you."

Maybe to those on the outside, that looks like flip-flopping -- or like voters who didn't take their responsibilities seriously enough early on. But in reality, it's only human nature. When more people you respect start voting for a guy, why wouldn't you take another look?

"I think we should be open to revisiting the merits of candidates," Topkin said. "Since I posted my ballot, I've, of course, had people ask mockingly, 'So how many hits did Raines get last year?' and other similar things. But there is nothing wrong with being open-minded. We change our views on other things in life with the benefit of age, wisdom, technology, information and perspective, so evaluating candidates for the Hall of Fame should not be immune."

His friends hit the campaign trail

Unlike politics, the candidates in this election don't campaign for themselves. So a guy has have to have friends -- unofficial campaign managers "who take it upon themselves," Cook said, "to get the word out."

Turned out Raines had a lot of them. And that list starts with Dawson, who chose not to spend his entire induction speech talking about himself -- because it was "important to me" to tell everyone within earshot that his friend, "Rock" Raines, belonged on that podium, too.

Meanwhile, as other players from Raines' generation got elected, they also took time to mention his name -- if not in their speeches, at least in interviews and news conferences. They got their message across.

"I started looking more closely at him," said USA Today's Bob Nightengale, "when Hall of Famers at the induction ceremony kept saying that he belongs."

Even Keri found himself tiptoeing across a line writers normally feel squeamish about crossing -- by reaching out personally via email this winter to voters who hadn't voted for Raines in the past.

"I tried to be superpolite," he said, "just saying, 'Here's why I vote for this guy.' I was just taking the column I wrote on him and putting it in front of them. It was kind of like direct tweets, except in their inbox."

He admits that a few writers took exception to having a fellow scribe campaign that actively for any player. But as a boyhood fan of a team that no longer exists, "I almost felt like I had a certain immunity," he joked, "just because the Expos are deceased."

"I'm well aware it's weird to do something like that," Keri said. "And I expected to get called out for it. But you know what? If the guy gets in the Hall of Fame, I'm fine with that."

Well, on this life-changing Wednesday in January, his guy, Tim Raines, has finally gotten in the Hall of Fame -- more than 5,000 days after he played his final game. It's a testament to Raines himself, of course. But it's also a testament to the relentless spinning of the planet, until the view of his career looked like the Cooperstown-worthy collection of achievements it was all along.