Debate: Is Tim Raines a Hall of Famer?

Tim Raines had a stolen base success rate of 84.7 percent. AP Photo/Marcos Townsend

Tim Raines finished his 23 seasons in the majors with a near-.300 career average, a very respectable .385 on-base percentage and 808 steals (good for fifth all time). If Raines had reached the 3,000-hit mark (he fell 395 short), maybe Jayson Stark and Peter Gammons wouldn't be having this e-mail debate.

You know, Peter, until I started working on my book, I was like a lot of other people. I thought Tim Raines was one of the best players of his generation, but I wasn't sure if he was a Hall of Famer.

The closer I looked, though, the more I became convinced he was. Was there some kind of information blockade at the Canadian border that prevented word of how great this guy was from reaching the States?

He and Rickey Henderson towered over the leadoff hitters of their generation. Rickey was just a lot louder about it. You might have noticed that.

I am torn on this. Raines, Rickey Henderson and Wade Boggs were the best of the '80s and early '90s, and while some of our sabermetric fellows do not believe players are humans, Raines made every team he was on better, not just because he was such a good player, but because his effervescent personality made teammates relax and play better; you'd go out to the cage and players would all be following him around.

My problem is that he never finished higher than fifth in the MVP balloting. Bill Madden always used to say he'd check the boldface print in Baseball Encyclopedia as a player's criteria. Today, we check what Baseball Reference calls black lines -- league leaders -- and Raines had 20 black lines, as opposed to Jim Rice's 33. He led the league in batting average once, on-base percentage once, doubles once and steals four times.

In his peak period of 14 years from 1982 to 1995, Raines was seventh in on-base percentage and second in runs, 11th in steals. Compare that to Jim Rice's best dozen seasons from 1975 through 1986, when he finished in the top five for MVP six times -- winning once -- while leading the majors in hits, RBI and total bases, finishing second in extra-base hits and slugging, third in runs created and homers and fourth in OPS; the only player who finished ahead of Rice in any of those categories not in Cooperstown was Dave Kingman, who was second in homers in those dozen years.

Raines was a great player who, like Bert Blyleven, may convince me in time that he belongs. But right now, I am not convinced.

You make a great case for Rice. But he and Tim Raines were two completely different players. They played the same position, but I think the MVP elections and league-leader numbers don't accurately reflect what a great player Raines was.

Those Expos teams he played for made the playoffs once -- and that was during the split strike season in 1981, which was Raines' rookie year. So Andre Dawson and Gary Carter were stars and the dominant personalities on that team, and that's understandable. But I still think Tim Raines was the driving offensive force on the Expos for the first seven full seasons of his career.

I always try to put those league-leader numbers in context: If a player didn't lead the league a bunch of times, did he at least come close? Well, when we look at Raines more closely, here's what we find:

He finished in the top five in steals nine times, in the top five in on-base percentage six times and in the top five in most times reaching base six times. He finished first or second in runs scored four times. He finished in the top three in three batting races.

And if we move on to the less traditional categories, he fared great in the sabermetricians' favorite departments: top five in total average six times; top five in offensive winning percentage six times; top five in runs created five times; and top five in runs created per game six times.

Almost all of those finishes came in his first seven seasons. After that, injuries killed him in the counting stats. But he was still a force, in a different kind of way, for another decade. So my point is, I don't think he deserves to be penalized for his failure to lead the league in enough departments, when he almost led the league in a bunch of categories every year for seven years.

Your points are really good, but when injuries struck players before the miracle cures of the late 20th century, if one wasn't a Koufax or a Rice and the domination did not last, to me, that becomes a serious issue when it comes to Cooperstown.

I do not hold it against Raines that he was at his best when baseball as an industry was learning that speed alone is not the key to being a great leadoff hitter. I just wish the greatness of his career had lasted longer.

I do look at the damage done by the collusion. I spent time with him in Florida when the Peter Ueberroth collusion was forcing him back to Les Expos. Which raises another question: Should any baseball official or owner who willingly participated in collusion be eligible for the Hall of Fame? That was an egregious form of cheating.

Boy, that's a really interesting issue. We could do a whole separate debate just on that question. But I'm glad you brought up collusion, because it leads me to a couple of points.

The first is that Raines finished with 2,605 hits: 395 away from 3,000. How many more would he have had if he'd played in an era of labor sanity? Think of all the games that were surgically removed from his career by collusion and labor strife. It adds up to almost a full season of his career -- half of it in that period when he was one of the best players in baseball.

I have no doubt that if he was a member of the 3,000-hit club, he'd cruise on into Cooperstown. And he'd be awfully close to 3,000 if he'd played in an era where they actually played out full seasons every year.

(Hey, I need to introduce a quick aside: This is off-topic, but since I mentioned Gwynn, did you know Tim Raines reached base more times in his career than Tony Gwynn did -- and that they had nearly identical career on-base percentages? And did you know that every eligible player who reached base as many times as Raines did, and had as high an on-base percentage as he had, is in the Hall of Fame?)

OK, back to our regularly scheduled programming. My other collusion point is this: If you were compiling a list of greatest leadoff seasons of modern times, where would you rank Raines' season in 1987 -- the year he missed all of spring training and all of April thanks to collusion, and still scored 123 runs? That .330 AVG/.429 OBP/.526 SLUG stat line is leadoff wizardry at its greatest, don't you think?

During spring training of 1987, I spent several days doing a story for Sports Illustrated on Raines and collusion, a story editors unfortunately chose not to run.

I think if he'd had that extra half season, 3,000 hits would have been more important, and he might have reached the magic figure. I also respect him immensely for never backing off open discussions about the drug problems he overcame, and consider him a role model for those afflicted.

There is a reason that I wait so long to file my ballot, and this debate is a great example. Given that he reached base more than Gwynn and, with Henderson and Boggs, helped change the leadoff position (if someone reaches base, one has a rally), I throw up my arms, beg mea culpa and am now voting for Raines.

Wow. Who knew I was that persuasive? I never even got to the nuggets I researched for my book that put me over the top, and I've already won you over? It's a miracle. I'm not sure we've ever had a debate on this site that ended this way before, with somebody saying: "Upon further review, you're right!" I know this never happened on "First and Ten." So take that, Skip!

But I think this shows why having this dialogue can be so worthwhile. Hall of Fame voting is tougher than most people realize because it's so hard to draw the line that separates Hall of Famers from the great players who fall into that close-but-not-quite department.

I think you and I take longer with our ballots than just about anyone I know because we want to give every candidate's career the consideration they've all earned. And that's one reason I wanted to kick this particular topic around with you, Peter.

I know how much respect you had for Raines. So I wanted to share some of the amazing Tim Raines achievements that not enough people noticed, due to technical who-knew-they-played-baseball-in-Montreal difficulties. This tells me Raines is going to get elected someday. And when he does, justice will be served.

One more Expos cap in Cooperstown. What a concept.