Tim Raines will be on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time in 2008, and a good argument can be made that he is worthy of induction. One of the game’s great leadoff hitters, Raines ranks fifth all-time with 808 steals, and has the highest stolen base percentage (84.7 percent) among players with at least 300 attempts. A seven-time All-Star, the former Expos and White Sox outfielder had a career OBP of .385, and reached base more times than did 2007-inductee Tony Gwynn. Raines is currently the hitting coach for Washington’s Double-A affiliate, the Harrisburg Senators.
David talked to Raines about the importance of the running game, the value of OBP, and the best players not in the Hall of Fame.
David Laurila: Let’s start with hitting. I saw quotes from Curtis Granderson recently, where he talked about catching the ball out front rather than staying back and letting it get deep. What are your thoughts on that?
Tim Raines: I think that in order to be a successful hitter, you need to see the ball longer, because you’re making a decision to swing or not. Too many guys feel that they have to hit the ball out in front to be successful. If you let it travel–if you let it get deep–you have more of an opportunity to wait back for breaking balls. Of course, not all hitters are the same. Some guys are strictly pull hitters, and they have to get the ball out front. What many of them do is get on top of the plate, so a ball toward the outside is really more inside to them. But if you’re off the plate, and like to use more of the field, you want to let the ball travel more and stay back.
DL: Is that how you’d describe your hitting philosophy?
TR: Yes, although I’m always careful about how I share my philosophy with my hitters. I can’t really teach guys to hit the way I did, because everyone is different. Here, we have guys who are stronger than I was, and they can drive the ball out of the park, so some of them should pull the ball more. Even though I had decent power for a smaller guy, I liked to go the other way and hit line drives all over the place.
DL: When people look at your career, they often focus on your stolen bases. What else do you feel they should take note of?
TR: I think they should look at what type of a hitter I was. I won a batting title and hit .294 lifetime, and over the course of 23 years that’s a lot of at-bats to have a high batting average. Overall, I feel that I was as good of a hitter as I was a guy on the base paths. I think that kind of gets lost to a lot of people though, because there were guys who hit for a higher average than I did. But I feel that I was a guy who could do it all. My on-base percentage was pretty high, which is what gave me an opportunity to be so successful on the base paths. That’s one thing about on-base percentage–it helps you to score runs. You can’t steal first base.
DL: You were an ideal leadoff hitter because you combined an ability to get on base with outstanding speed. Of those two qualities, which do you feel is more important for a leadoff guy?
TR: OBP. I’d rather have someone who can get on, because you can’t steal bases if you don’t get on base. It’s all about getting opportunities, and every time you get on base you’re giving your team an opportunity to score. You still see a few teams putting their fastest guys on top, but more of them are using one of their better hitters, someone with a good on-base percentage, in the leadoff position. The key in baseball is getting on base to score runs. It’s nice if you can get on and make things happen–that’s valuable, too–but you also have guys coming up behind you who can drive you in, guys who can hit it out of the ballpark.
DL: A lot of people today feel that stolen bases are overrated. Do you agree with that?
TR: No. I think a stolen base is as important as a double. For one thing, you don’t necessarily need a hit to score a run if you have a guy who can steal bases. You can be facing a tough pitcher late in the game, and if [the runner] steals second base you can score him by bunting him over and then hitting a ground ball or a fly ball. I think it puts more pressure on your hitters if you don’t have anyone who can steal bases. If you ask different managers, they’ll say it different ways, but it helps your offense. Of course, there are some teams, like Boston, who hit a lot of balls out of the park and hit lot of doubles–that’s how they score runs. But others have to play A-B-C ball, where they steal a base, bunt a guy over, and then find a way to get him in. They have to manufacture runs.
DL: You were a coach on the White Sox team that won it all in 2005. Who was the key to that offense?
TR: For me, it was Scott Podsednik. We didn’t have much speed besides Podsednik, and even though we were a team that hit a lot of home runs, sometimes we were facing a tough pitcher and weren’t going to do that. If you have someone who can get on and make things happen, that opens up the field for your second, third, and fourth hitters. What happens is that when you get a guy on who can steal bases, the focus turns to him instead of the hitter. The second baseman needs to worry about him stealing; the shortstop has to worry about the ball getting away on a throw; everybody is moving around. It changes the whole outlook of the defense.
DL: While many people value Podsednik’s contributions in 2005, others point to his low 700 OPS. Do you think he negatively impacted the team’s ability to score runs in any way?
TR: At times, tremendously. When he wasn’t on, we weren’t the same team. When we were really playing well, Scotty was hitting the ball. One of the reasons we had problems later that season is that he got hurt; we didn’t have him disrupting the other team like he had earlier.
DL: While you were successful a high percentage of the time during your playing days, Podsednik was caught 23 times in 82 stolen base attempts in 2005. Can a team afford to have a guy thrown out that many times, or does the threat itself make up for the lost scoring opportunities?
TR: You don’t want to get caught that many times, but the threat is important. As long as you’re out there being aggressive, you’re putting pressure on the defense. You’re making them be perfect with their execution. Just knowing that a running threat is on that field and getting a chance four or five times–that’s four or five times they might have to worry about more than just the hitter. There’s a lot of value in that.
DL: How often did you not run because of who was at the plate? For instance, with first base open, a pitcher may not give someone like Andre Dawson anything to hit.
TR: There were times, but it was rare that I wouldn’t run, even with Andre at the plate. That did change a little once I got to Chicago, but it wasn’t the case in Montreal. I would try to steal second, but I didn’t try for third with Andre hitting. The way he hit the ball, I didn’t want to be picked off by a line drive while I was running!
DL: A risk of stealing second base in certain situations is that you might be taking the bat out of the hands of one of your best hitters. That wasn’t really a concern of yours?
TR: Well, if I was a teammate of Barry Bonds, maybe I wouldn’t run, because then they probably wouldn’t pitch to him. But I think the game has changed. Back in the day, there weren’t many guys you’d see that happen with, especially with a right-hander versus a right-hander. They rarely walked guys with first base open like they do now. They’d usually go after hitters.
DL: Did you have any teammates who didn’t like you running while they were up at the plate?
TR: Frank Thomas. Frank didn’t want me running on a 3-2 count with two outs! He didn’t want anyone running. For some reason, he had a problem with that, but he was the only guy.
DL: Did many guys want to know when you were running?
TR: The second-place hitter usually liked to know, because he was a guy who was good at taking pitches. But normally, if I was running, it was on the first couple of pitches, and after that, he knew he could swing away. And I always let the guys hitting behind me know what I wanted to do. If I thought I was going to be running that day, I’d tell them before the game. For instance, if we were facing a good slide-step guy, I’d let them know they should just swing away if they got their pitch.
DL: Changing direction a bit, who were your baseball heroes growing up?
TR: Joe Morgan was the first. He’s probably the reason I played baseball, because I loved football a lot more when I was in high school. I felt that I was a better football player than a baseball player, even though my size isn’t real big for football. Another guy was George Brett, because I kind of patterned my hitting off of him. With Joe, it was more because he was about my size. I saw him winning an MVP award in the big leagues, and figured that if he could do that, I had a shot at making it in baseball.
DL: When did you begin patterning yourself after George Brett?
TR: That was around the start of my big league career, really. When I was in the minor leagues, I fooled around with trying to hit like all kinds of guys. I remember my first official at-bat in the major leagues–it was against Nolan Ryan–and I patterned my hitting after Rod Carew. What he did was lean back on his back leg and kind of laid the bat off his side. I tried hitting that way, but it just wasn’t the best way for me. You see, I didn’t actually start switch-hitting until I got to pro ball, so I was making adjustments at every level I played.
DL: Who made you into a switch-hitter?
TR: The Expos did. Once I signed and got to camp, they wanted me to utilize my speed a little more, so they had me switch-hit–I had just hit right-handed before that.
DL: What was your best game in a big league uniform?
TR: It had to be the game where I hit three home runs in Fenway Park. I missed a fourth one by about a foot that day.
DL: You came up in the ninth inning with an opportunity to hit a fourth home run. Were you going for it?
TR: I actually wasn’t–I never tried to hit home runs. No, actually that’s not true. When I was in Montreal, I hit 18 one year, and decided I wanted 20, but I couldn’t do it. But that day (in Boston) I wasn’t trying to hit the ball out of the park. Later, as I got older and wasn’t playing as much, I did learn to pull the ball more. When I played in New York, they had that short porch, and my game had changed a little because I wasn’t quite as fast anymore.
DL: What do you consider your best season?
TR: Probably the year I led the league in hitting–I think that was in ’86. I batted all over the place that season, too, including third and fourth. At times I was a lead-off hitter hitting third and fourth in the order. But along with the batting title, I had a high on-base percentage, a lot of stolen bases, and for a little guy I hit some home runs. I had some good years, but I think that was the best one.
DL: When you look back at your career, is there anything you’d do differently?
TR: No. There isn’t anything I’d do differently. I played the game hard, and that’s how I want to be remembered. I want to be remembered as a guy who came to the ballpark every day and was ready to play. Another thing I did when I went out there was have fun.
DL: Early in your career there was an issue with cocaine use.
TR: Yes, and it’s not something I’m proud of, but I also don’t want people to have the wrong idea about what happened. I was never a drug addict or anything like that. Not to make excuses, but I was young and it was a part of the culture at the time–I simply made a bad decision. But I was never arrested, or caught doing anything. I voluntarily sought help, because I didn’t want it to get in the way of my career, and coming clean was part of that therapy. I took what happened as a learning experience, and going forward I think it made me a better person.
DL: You mentioned Barry Bonds earlier. Do you feel that most players, and former players, view him much differently than the average fan does?
TR: He’s clearly one of the best to ever play the game. That’s how I look at it. Fans might look at him as someone who’s snobby and won’t talk to the media, or to the fans, but once he gets between the lines he’s the best player the game has seen.
DL: Bonds obviously has a difficult public persona. Do players concern themselves with something like that?
TR: Some guys see it as being bad; others don’t see it that way. I think it’s his prerogative. I mean, you’re going to find some star players who don’t like to talk, and you’re going to find some that do. Everyone is an individual, and you have to run your life the way you want to run it. To me, you get paid to play the game, but you also know the other stuff that comes with it. With someone like Barry, he’s been in the media eye since he was a baby. Because his father was a major league player, the pressure on him to become a star was far tougher than it is for most guys. For me, I loved to sign autographs, because it made me feel like I had arrived. Barry was dealing with that when he was still in high school. It’s somewhat similar with my own son, because if your father plays major league baseball, the expectations on you are automatic.
DL: Has it been difficult watching your son, Tim Raines Jr., deal with the pressures of pro ball?
TR: No, it’s actually been fantastic. I just love watching him play the game. I mean, I’m a student of the game too, and I love watching talented players. I give props to anyone who can perform at the major league level and be a good player.
DL: Who do you consider the best players not in the Hall of Fame?
TR: I would say Andre Dawson. I would say Jim Rice. Goose Gossage. There are probably a few more, but those three come to mind first. I have a lot of respect for what they could do on the field, what they meant to their teams, their accomplishments, and their longevity. Those are the things the Hall of Fame is all about.
DL: Do you feel that longevity is an important consideration?
TR: I do, unless something happens. Take, for instance, a guy like Kirby Puckett. He only played for about 12 years, but those 12 years counted. I felt that he was deserving of the honor. Another one is Bruce Sutter. His career was cut short, but he was one of the best closers of his era. I think when you’re talking about the Hall of Fame you need to think about the era, because the game has changed. Back in the day, nobody hit 50 home runs; today, it seems like everybody is hitting 50 home runs. You have to look at the numbers they put up compared to the guys they played against.
DL: If you’re elected to the Hall of Fame, how will that change your life?
TR: It would be meaningful to me, I’ll say that. When I started out, my main concern was to play as long as I could. You grow up dreaming of being a big league player, but you don’t really understand what it takes to get there, or to stay there. I’m proud of having played for as long as I did, and I think I had a pretty good career. It would mean a lot to me to be given such an honor.