1983 is the first year that I can remember. I was four years old and my dad had me watching every White Sox game with him. After all, it hadn’t been since 1959 that the White Sox were a playoff team. Throughout the 1960s, the White Sox were a very good team but they could never get over the hump. The 1970s brought some hard times, but there were memorable seasons in 1972 and 1977. Still no playoffs. 1983 was different. The Sox started slow but tore through the league starting in July and ran away with the city’s first playoff team since those 1959 White Sox.
I didn’t know the long heartaches at the time. I just watched the games because my dad took me. The first guy that caught my eye was Ron Kittle. He was blasting home runs farther than anyone else. He was the guy that I always liked to watch hit. However, the more I watched, the more I noticed another guy. A lefty with a big leg kick who was another level ahead of the rest of the guys in the lineup. A guy who may not crush one over the roof like Kitty, but when the game was on the line he was the guy everyone wanted up there the most: Harold Baines.
I was in attendance when Baines sent the White Sox to the playoffs for the first time in 24 years with a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the ninth against the Seattle Mariners. When Julio Cruz crossed the plate, I was scooped up by my dad and we stormed the field celebrating.
Like most successful White Sox seasons, 1983 was unfortunately fleeting. After a hard-fought series loss against the eventual world champion Orioles, the White Sox would fall back down the standings in following years. Injuries caught up to Kittle, age caught up to Greg Luzinski, and the vaunted pitching staff started falling off one by one.
However, Baines remained a great hitter. Year in and year out, Harold Baines was coming up with big hits. It was Harold who was representing the team as an All-Star. It was Harold being the steady figure, hitting .300 with 20 home runs and 90 RBIs like clockwork when the rest of the lineup was mediocre at best.
At the trade deadline in 1989, Harold Baines was dealt to the Texas Rangers. I remember where I was that day. It was a punch to the gut. I couldn’t believe the organization would have the nerve to trade the guy that everyone loved. It left a sour taste in my mouth. Fortunately for my White Sox fandom, they had amassed a great young core that performed in 1990 and beyond. That core was led by another future Hall of Famer, Frank Thomas.
Even though the White Sox did very well in the trade for Baines by getting Sammy Sosa, Wilson Alvarez, and Scott Fletcher, it never sat right with me. Seeing Harold in a Rangers uniform and then reunited with his former White Sox manager and fellow Hall of Famer, Tony LaRussa, on the powerhouse A’s teams was weird. That was my guy. That was our guy. He was our Tony Gwynn. He was our Cal Ripken. He was our Kirby Puckett. He should’ve been sitting right in the middle of our lineup in the 1993 playoffs and not hitting his customary .313 with 20 homers in his first season with the Orioles.
In November of 1995, Harold became a free agent. He also appeared at the annual November card show in Rosemont. I had to meet my White Sox hero. When I got the chance to meet him, I said: “Harold come back to the White Sox, we need you.” I don’t know if he took my words to heart, but a couple of weeks later Baines re-signed with the White Sox. Per usual, Harold hit .311 with 22 homers and 95 RBI like it was 1986 instead of 1996. In 1997, Baines was hitting .305 with 12 homers and 52 RBIs when the White Sox threw up the white flag and sent him back to Baltimore. Yet, when it was time for the Sox to win again, they looked to good old number three one more time and acquired him again in 2000. This time, a little of the magic was gone as he only hit .213 with one homer in 24 games in a White Sox uniform. However, he still came through in the playoffs with a double and the only run the Sox scored against the Mariners in his only start of the series. He re-signed for one more year in 2001, but Father Time catches us all. He just took a little longer running down Harold. At 42, Harold couldn’t pull the trigger anymore. I remember being in attendance when he came off of the disabled list at the end of the year and they put him up one last time on September 27, 2001. I had tears in my eyes as Harold took strike three, knowing it was the last time I’d see one of the first guys I remember watching as a four-year-old sitting on my dad’s lap at Old Comiskey.
Harold connected the old school White Sox with the new school White Sox. Bill Veeck, the owner of the 1959 White Sox, hand-selected Harold with the first pick in 1977. Harold wore the collared jersey all the way through the current one. Harold was in a game with Minnie Minoso and Mark Buehrle. He was the bridge that connected multiple generations of White Sox fans.
Harold ended his career with 2,866 hits, 384 home runs and 1,628 RBIs over 22 seasons. In the history of baseball, only 15 guys ended their careers with more in each category: Babe Ruth, Mel Ott, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Frank Robinson, Carl Yastrzemski, Dave Winfield, Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro, Albert Pujols (still active) and Adrian Beltre. While Harold never had the huge MVP type of season that the others had, when you are consistently very good for the better part of 22 seasons, you’re an all-time great.
This past December, I held out a little bit of hope for Harold to make the Hall. I started posting his numbers last July, showing he had more homers than Joe DiMaggio, more RBIs than Mickey Mantle, and more hits than Lou Gehrig. There was no doubt in my mind that Harold hit just as well, if not better than many of the recent inductees. With Edgar Martinez trending up as a designated hitter, I felt that it would only be right for Harold to go in as well. After all, Harold was the first “boss” of the DH. The flowchart goes Baines-Edgar-David Ortiz, just like the closer flow chart is Hoyt Wilhelm– Lee Smith–Mariano Rivera. However, I’ve thought that Baines should’ve been in a long time ago, so I wasn’t expecting it.
I was out in Las Vegas for the Winter Meetings when the news that Harold Baines had made the Hall of Fame became public. I proudly held up his jersey on the MLB Tonight live broadcast.
The next day, Harold came out to be introduced as the newest Hall of Famer, and I was thrilled to get to congratulate him at the Mandalay Bay.
It was only right that I go to Cooperstown with my dad, brother, and son — who went to his first MLB game the day the White Sox unveiled Harold’s statue and went to Cooperstown for the first time to see Harold Baines get inducted, proving that Harold is still the bridge to generations of White Sox fans. Congratulations to the best clutch hitter I’ve ever seen and the guy that always showed up and performed well for 20-plus years… Harold Baines.
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