1. Tim Raines' Grand Return
Mentioned in the same breath as Fernando Valenzuela among the hotly anticipated rookies of 1981, Raines was my radar from the get-go, an instant favorite because of his blazing speed. Even so, it wasn't until six years later that he put forth what stands, in my mind, as his signature moment.
Raines had won the NL batting title in 1986, hitting .334 with a league-leading .413 on-base percentage as well. Just 27 at the end of the season, he had reached free agency, but suspiciously received no contract offers. Baseball was in the midst of its collusion era, where Commissioner Peter Ueberroth and team owners conspired to hold down free-agent prices by not bidding on each others' free agents except with lowball offers. Once an artificial deadline passed on January 8, Raines had to wait until May 1 to return to the Expos. With his agent beginning negotiations at 12:01 AM, he signed a three-year, $5 million deal to return around 3 a.m., a slight bump up from the offer he had rejected back in January. Without the benefit of spring training or a minor-league stint, Raines stepped into the Expos lineup on May 2, turning a Saturday afternoon NBC Game of the Week against the Mets at Shea Stadium into the greatest comeback special since Elvis Presley's.
Batting third, Raines came up in the first inning with two out and nobody on against a 24-year-old rookie righty named David Cone. Hitting from the left side, he ripped Cone's first pitch off the right-field wall for a triple, though he was stranded when Tim Wallach flew out. In the third, he worked a one-out walk, stole second base, and blazed home on a two-out Andres Galarraga single. Still facing Cone, he grounded out to lead off the fifth, and hit a two-out single in the sixth inning against reliever Terry Leach after the Expos had tied the seesaw game at 4 apiece.
With the Expos trailing by two runs at the top of the ninth, Raines—now batting righty against lefty Gene Walter—led off by beating out an infield single to shortstop Al Pedrique, who had just entered the game and bumped Howard Johnson to third base. He took third on a Wallach single to left field, and scored on a groundout. The Expos wound up tying the game and sending it to extra innings, and started the 10th with three straight singles against lefty Jesse Orosco. After Orosco missed with a slider for ball one, Raines sat in wait for a fastball and hammered one into Shea Stadium's picnic area. As the great Vin Scully called it, "High drive into deep left field, McReynolds watching… Would you believe? A grand slam for Tim Raines!"
"That has to be one of those stories, if you wrote it for television, they'd say that's too corny. It'll never work," responded Joe Garagiola, Scully's partner in the booth.
The Expos added another run, the Mets scored once in the bottom of the frame, and Raines ended his day with a breathtaking 5 3 4 4 box score line. He would go on to homer in his first at-bat the next day, and to hit .330/.429/.526 for the season, setting career highs in both on-base and slugging percentage, but he was never better than on that Saturday afternoon. —Jay Jaffe
2. Tim Raines' Leadership
I got to know Tim Raines really well when he played for the White Sox in the early 1990s, as I was the club's assistant GM at the time. We traded for Tim because we needed a leadoff man, but Rock's impact was even bigger in our clubhouse, where he became one of the team’s leaders. I had tremendous respect for him because of how he carried himself on and off the field when we were with the White Sox.
I was broadcasting for the Chicago Cubs on Opening Day 2001 and visited the Expos' clubhouse at Wrigley Field to say hello to Montreal manager Felipe Alou and Raines. Tim and I carried the conversation to the batting cage during BP, and I asked him to appear on our Opening Day pre-game show. He was outstanding in the television interview, reflecting on his career, his role as a pinch-hitter and mentor, and how he could watch the great Alou manage a baseball game from an ideal seat.
When the interview was over, we stepped toward the foul line, away from the Cubs bullpen, and caught up a little more. Raines ended with a comment that I will never forget: "The best thing about this is that I still love to play, and I want to give back out of respect to all of those guys who have been so good to me all my life. It feels good, feels right."
He had come full circle, knowing he was in the twilight of his career but okay with where he was in his life. I could hear a transformation from a great player to a future impact coach. He will do a magnificent job as the Blue Jays' roving baserunning instructor, a position he was hired to do last week.
I am proud to call him a friend, and I hope that Cooperstown opens its doors to him tomorrow, as he was one of the greatest players of his generation, a definite Hall of Famer.—Dan Evans
3. Craig Biggio's Excellence
We will never see another player like Craig Biggio. His Hall of Fame credentials as a first-time eligible player are clear: 3060 career hits, the most doubles ever by a right-handed hitter, 15th all-time in runs scored, a fearless competitor, an outstanding leadoff man, and one of the most durable players ever. But what separates Biggio from his peers is that he did it at three incredibly demanding up-the-middle defensive positions, and the sequence that he accomplished it with was even more unique.
Biggio came up as a catcher with the Astros in 1988, and he was damn good, with as much range and athleticism as a catcher has ever displayed. He won a Silver Slugger and was an All-Star. In 1992, three years into his major-league career, he made the unheard-of switch to second base, where he starred for the next decade and collected four Gold Gloves, four more Silver Slugger Awards, and five All-Star selections. No one else has ever made the All-Star Team as both a catcher and a second baseman in their career. I will never forget that straight over-the-top arm action that was so unique for a second baseman.
And he just kept on producing. He scored an incredible 146 runs in 1997 and played over 1,800 games without going on the disabled list until late in the 2000 season. He gave you everything he had, every day he showed up at the ballpark.
Then, he defied the baseball gods in 2003 by switching to center field in his mid-30s, and amazingly, he was among the top three National Leaguers in Zone Rating. He is the only player in major-league history with at least 1,000 at-bats as a catcher, second baseman, and center fielder. Catchers don't move out to the center of the diamond. It just doesn't happen, especially in the prime of their career. For Biggio to go from catcher to second to center is an amazing achievement, and he did so while excelling at the plate throughout.
On top of his on-field excellence, he was exceptional off the field, winning the Branch Rickey Award in 1997, the Hutch Award in 2005, and the Roberto Clemente Award in 2007. I doubt there are many players who have collected all three of those awards, and his contributions in the Houston community are stunning.
His 62.1 WAR is better than half of the 19 second basemen already in Cooperstown, and Baseball Reference lists Robin Yount, Derek Jeter, Joe Morgan, Paul Molitor, Roberto Alomar, and Cal Ripken Jr. as the players he is most similar to. That's baseball royalty.
No Astro will ever wear #7 again, as the club retired that number in 2008, a year after Biggio's retirement. His professionalism, tenacity, and talent earned the complete respect of his peers, and he played every game in his 20-year career with the Astros.
I loved watching Craig Biggio play and truly hope that he is elected to the Hall of Fame today because he was so unique—an incredibly versatile, outstanding all-around player and an exceptional person off the field. That special contribution to baseball should be rewarded with a plaque in Cooperstown. —Dan Evans
4. Roger Clemens' Opening Day Start
In spring 1989, I was 13. One day, my friend Zack’s dad called me up on the phone. When your friend’s parent calls you on the phone, that’s never good. So I was already in the realm of the improbable even before he offered me a ticket to see Opening Day in Baltimore with Zack and himself. My parents were surprisingly receptive, considering it was a day game and I would have to miss school. Well, not so much “miss” as not attend. Anyway.
The day of the game came and we drove up I-95 to North Baltimore where the Orioles were set to play the Boston Red Sox at old Memorial Stadium. We were in the bleacher seats behind the outfield wall. This being the age before Camden Yards and the retro-styled parks, there was about a 15-foot distance between the bleachers and wall where, it seemed, every implement known to man was stored by groundskeepers. We got there early, and I brought my camera. I took roughly a billion pictures of Roger Clemens long-tossing in the outfield before the game. I’d love to say he struck out 17 and dominated, but that didn’t happen. In fact, Clemens didn’t pitch particularly well, striking out just four while walking three in seven innings. His mediocrity was matched by his opposite, the somewhat-less-than-immortal Dave Schmidt. Still, it was the first and only time I ever saw him pitch.
Clemens was just 26 years old. After that game, he threw another 246 innings, striking out 230 in total (or 226 more). He ended the year without any All-Star, MVP, or Cy Young votes, the only year between 1986 and 1992 that he didn’t receive any consideration for any of the major awards. It was one of the more ordinary starts in one of the more ordinary seasons in the career of perhaps the greatest pitcher ever. I was extraordinarily lucky to be there, and thanks to Zack and his dad, I’ll always be able to say I saw Roger Clemens pitch. The moral: Sometimes a bit of truancy is for the best. —Matthew Kory
5. Kenny Lofton Provides the Comfort of Home
It's odd how many stories from my adolescence involve Kenny Lofton. In fact, the first scouting report I heard on him was from my parish priest who had done some chaplaincy work for the Indians in the early '90s. He was allegedly faster than Alex Cole. And everyone in Cleveland knew that no one was faster than Alex Cole. I remember 12-year-old me being impressed by Lofton when he broke Miguel Dilone's single-season team record, and 12-year-old me being outraged when he lost Rookie of the Year to Pat Listach. In spring training 1997, there were rumors running around my school that Lofton had been traded. I actually used the pay phone outside the locker room of my gym class to try calling my dad to find out whether this was true. (For the younger among you, this was a time before anyone carried a cell phone, and even if you did, it only made phone calls.) The only other time I called my parents from school was the day I got into an accident going to school. There was the day that my friends and I snuck down to the front row behind home plate at Jacobs Field (it was raining and everyone was hiding!) and I got to see Lofton hit… before we were politely asked to go back to our real seats. And, oh yeah, there were the late-'90s post-season runs.
Kenny Lofton is even responsible for my crush on the Cubs. When the Cubs traded for Aramis Ramirez from the Pirates midway through 2003, they also picked up Mr. Lofton. For the homesick new kid in the big city, it was a tiny slice of home every night on WGN. In 2007, the Indians re-acquired Lofton at the trading deadline, I was driving on the Indiana turnpike back to Chicago. I was listening to the radio broadcast of his first game back, and when Tom Hamilton, voice of the Indians announced that Kenny Lofton was coming to bat—in an Indians uniform—I actually shed a tear or two. My wife asked me why I was crying, and I told her all of the above stories. For the first time, she sort of understood my love affair with baseball. Kenny Lofton might not make the Hall of Fame, but he'll always have a special place in the Hall of Russell. —Russell A. Carleton
6. Don Mattingly's Signed Baseball
A weekday afternoon game at Yankee Stadium. This was back when you could walk up to the box office 10 minutes before first pitch, buy a Tier Reserved seat for—if memory serves—$12, and move down into one of the many empty Tier Box seats right at the very front of the upper deck: great seats at the old Yankee Stadium. Probably the strike year of 1994, at a guess.
I have no memory of the game itself that day, let alone of anything Mattingly may have done in it. What I do remember is this: I had the ticket for the lucky seat giveaway. I never even listen to those announcements, but it was a quiet, somnolent afternoon—the Yankees were probably playing the Royals, or the Twins—and there was nothing else to pay attention to between innings. So I took myself on what would turn out to be a long, long trip down to what I believe was known as the Club Level of the old ballpark. I spent probably an entire inning trying to find the little booth where a bored older guy looked at my stub. Yep, that was the winner, he confirmed; and with that peerless, practiced indifference—more a kind of presumptive disdain that seems unique to born New Yorkers—handed me a baseball wrapped in plastic. I figured it to be a Yankee-logoed cheapie, but when I turned it over in my hands, there on the sweet spot was Don Mattingly’s autograph—and I said so to the attendant. This aroused his interest. I handed it to him, he looked the thing over, and then said, with undisguised appreciation and some little surprise, “Not too many of those in this building.” Then he bestowed it on me again with a newfound respect, as though my winning the ball must have meant that I was endowed with a certain kind of power or charm.
I have no idea if the autograph was real, although the signature did resemble others I’ve seen. But the attendant’s reaction to the ball decided me: it must be real, or he wouldn’t care so much. I moved away from New York a few years later, and then moved many more times over the next decade, but I was always very vigilant about the Mattingly ball because it had been reified by time for me as the Real Deal. Also, I thought Mattingly might end up in the Hall of Fame, so I might be in possession of a fairly valuable souvenir. From apartment to apartment, city to city, box to box, I kept tabs on the Mattingly ball until I went to have a look at it in 2006 and discovered that I had no idea where it was and, in fact, had had no inkling at all, not really, for years. Ah, well. It appears to be worth about $150, not that it matters. It’s priceless to me, largely because it’s gone. What’s that Proust saying? The only true paradise is a paradise that has been lost? —Adam Sobsey
7. Julio Franco's Hitting Excellence
My oldest personal memory of Julio Franco comes from the 1989 All-Star Game. It was the first ballgame that I ever recorded on a VCR, and I would re-watch the game repeatedly over the next several years. Decades later, I have only two distinct memories from that game: The first was Bo Jackson's rocket homer off of NL starter Rick Reuschel to lead off the home half of the first inning, which led to a pile of fans sprawling across the center-field tarp for the souvenir; the other memory was of guest announcer Ronald Reagan butchering Franco's name, with the former President pronouncing “Joo-lio Franco” instead of “Hoo-lio.” The mistake threw me for a loop, as my 10-year-old mind was awestruck by the idea that I knew more about baseball than the president.
But my favorite memory of Julio Franco is actually based on a story told by my former employer, Tom House, who was pitching coach for the Texas Rangers when Franco was on the team. Observers would marvel at Franco's unique batting stance, with his hands held high and the bat wrapped until it was facing the pitcher. Many people wondered how he could maintain the bat speed necessary to support such a swing path, yet Franco was collecting big-league paychecks past his 49th birthday based primarily on his hitting skills.
Tom used to say that Franco had some of the strongest wrists that he had ever seen, generating tremendous bat speed with one of the heaviest pieces of lumber in the majors, and Julio would show off his skills during batting practice. The Rangers had a pitching machine that could hit 110 mph, and Franco would step to the plate and immediately start ripping line drives. He would then take a few steps closer to the machine, reset his stance, spray a few more liners around Arlington, and then proceed to step even closer to the spinning wheels, demonstrating his superior ability to time his swing to virtually any velocity. Franco may not earn a plaque in the Hall of Fame, but the 25-year veteran deserves a tip of the cap in the HOF museum. —Doug Thorburn
8. Roberto Hernandez's 300th Save
Roberto Hernandez, a first-timer on the ballot, is a long shot to reach Cooperstown. But in May of 2002, he closed out a Saturday night game and earned his 300th career save, a welcome dose of achievement in an otherwise dreary year—or two decades—for the Royals and those of us watching at Kauffman Stadium.
Hall of Fame relievers are relatively rare, and after pitching for a dozen organizations, Hernandez has no group of fans in one city lobbying for him. But he is one of just 15 pitchers to appear in 1,000 games and the first Latin player to reach 300 saves. As he hustled to first base to record the final putout that night in 2002, he pumped his fist and broke into a wide smile, enjoying a moment of personal triumph in a long career of consistency and professionalism. Not a bad legacy there, with or without Cooperstown. —Jeff Euston
9. Barry Bonds' First Game
Here’s a little-remembered fact: Barry Bonds had to sit around Three Rivers Stadium for three days before making his major-league debut. The Pirates purchased Bonds’ contract from their Triple-A Hawaii farm club—yes kids, Honolulu was once part of the Pacific Coast League—on May 26, 1986, and that meant space needed to be cleared on the 25-man roster. However, because of a waiver snafu, the Pirates couldn’t open a spot for three days until the immortal Trench Davis, a reserve outfielder, cleared waivers.
Davis wound up with a triple-slash line of .121/.118/.121 in 34 career plate appearances. Bonds, on the other hand, wound up becoming the all-time home run leader with 762, but his first major-league game was barely more memorable than Davis’ career. Bonds went 0-for-5 with three strikeouts and a walk as the Pirates lost to the Dodgers, 6-4, in 11 innings on May 30 at Three Rivers Stadium in front of a crowd of 25,230, which was monstrous in those days for a franchise that had contemplated moving to Denver a year earlier. I happened to cover that game for the Beaver County Times as our then-Pirates beat writer was on his honeymoon in Montreal—where he and his new bride caught an Expos’ game at Olympic Stadium in true baseball writer fashion.
My most vivid memory of Bonds that night was of him sitting at his locker with his head down, picking at a paper plate of food. He looked like the Pirates had just lost Game Seven of the World Series rather than a game in the last weekend of May. Things got better for Bonds from there, and I have to admit, it’s pretty neat to say I was at his first game. —John Perrotto
10. David Wells Made Me Late to My Bar Mitzvah Party
When Colin Wyers finishes PECOTA for the year, we’ll put him to work on the proper factors to adjust game score for intoxication when we weigh this against Dock Ellis’ acid-laced no-hitter. However it stacks up, Wells’ drunken dismantling of the Minnesota Twins on May 17, 1998, in the post-SNL-party haze was an unforgettable moment from a player who is unlikely to remain on the ballot beyond this year.
I associate that weekend with partying too, though on a slightly different order of magnitude and BAC. It was the month of my 13th birthday and the day after I became a Bar Mitzvah, so some friends were gathering that Sunday afternoon to celebrate. The party was on the second floor of a restaurant, and I would have been on time for my own party, too, had I not been watching the last inning of the perfect game at the bar downstairs. Everybody understood. —Zachary Levine