LAS VEGAS — We’ve talked a lot about Harold Baines’ recent election to the Hall of Fame by the Today’s Game Committee. The executive summary: Baines — however nice a guy he is and however much people liked him — did not have a career that came close to the standards of most Hall of Fame inductees.
As I wrote on Monday, my view as to how this happened is that Baines was the beneficiary of an extremely friendly 16-person committee, at least three members of which had personal connections to him. While I am happy for Baines for for receiving baseball’s highest honor and for Baines’ fans for getting to grok some of the glory vicariously, it’s hard to view it as anything other than a product of cronyism and a conflict of interest on a part of the Hall of Fame and the Today’s Game Committee. Nothing personal, Harold, it’s just a fact.
One of those three members of the Today’s Game Committee was Tony La Russa, who managed Baines in Chicago and in Oakland and whom Baines described on Monday as a close, personal friend. As I wrote on Monday, I don’t begrudge La Russa for voting for Baines. Once you’re on the Committee you have free rein to vote your conscience and that’s what La Russa did. But leave it to La Russa — a guy with a law degree who has never met an untenable position he didn’t at least make an effort to argue with a straight face — to claim he didn’t vote for Baines because he knows him and loves him.
La Russa was on Chris Russo’s show on MLB Network this morning, and Russo confronted him about Baines’ election, trying to get the Hall of Fame manager to admit that, really, Baines is not up to typical Hall of Fame snuff. La Russa pushed back on that forcefully, claiming that it was not a matter of him knowing and loving Baines, but that Baines was, by objective baseball standards, a worthy Hall of Famer. What’s more, he claimed that anyone who disagreed with him on that was basing their argument on “that weak-a**, superficial bulls**t.”
I’m not sure what about the case against Baines is “weak-a**” or “superficial bulls**t.” Indeed, the case is about the most straightforward and substantive case there could possibly be. As I and others have observed, Baines led the league in exactly one offensive category in his long career: slugging percentage in 1984. His highest finish in MVP balloting came in 1985 when he came in ninth. Those relative-to-Hall-of-Famer modest hitting numbers look worse when you consider that for well over half of the 2,830 games he played he was a designated hitter. As Jeff Snider of BaseballEssential.com tweeted yesterday, Baines was rarely even a top-five player on his own team.
La Russa is a very smart man and he knows this. But he also has a long and rich history of trying to tell people that black is white when he has been second guessed. He didn’t screw up, it’s you who got it wrong. Or perhaps you simply misunderstood.
In 2011 he made a famous mistake with his bullpen in the World Series and claimed he didn’t screw up, it was simply too loud, which never really added up. I witnessed something similar in person. In 2010, after a spring training game — spring training! — I was in the clubhouse as he explained to a very well-respected reporter that a very clear mistake which was made in the game — by a player, not La Russa — did not in fact happen or did not happen in the way the reporter saw it (note: the reporter was right). One could charitably chalk this up to La Russa protecting his players and coaches as many managers do. With him, though, it often seems driven by arrogance and zero tolerance on his part to be questioned by people he does not feel are as smart or qualified as him. Which is, well, almost everyone.
La Russa was a great manager and baseball mind, but he is full of crap here. He knows dang well why he voted for Harold Baines. He tries to save it here by citing “the things we looked at” and making references to Baines’ “greatness” and “longevity” but the case holds no objective water. As I said, once the Hall of Fame put La Russa on the Committee he was entitled to vote for whomever he wanted and, if he wanted to, he could simply say “Harold Baines was a great man and a great professional and I think he’s a Hall of Famer.” We’d take issue with that as being enough, but it would at least constitute the honest reason why La Russa gave him his vote.
Instead we get this. A highly disingenuous argument combined with a profane insult aimed at anyone who disagrees with La Russa (i.e. almost everyone). What a sad performance from a guy of La Russa’s stature.