Name this Baltimore Oriole, who is not going to the All-Star Game:
* He's leading the American League in slugging percentage, although he doesn't have enough at-bats to make the list right now.
* He's second in baseball in RBI per at-bat, behind only Manny Ramirez.
* He's batting .345 and is on pace to hit 37 homers with 120 RBI.
* He needs only 275 hits for 3,000 and 33 homers for 400. His manager says, "He can play five more years." So, he may also be a Hall of Famer.
* He has played for the Orioles for six of the last seven years, but you may never have heard him speak.
* This week, he tied Don Baylor for the most career home runs as a designated hitter. Next week, he'll probably pass Hal McRae for most career hits by a DH. "No one will notice," says coach Elrod Hendricks. "And he won't care."
* He's having the best year of his career at age 40.
* One final clue: The Orioles may trade him soon. They probably should.
Say hello to Harold Baines, lifelong resident of the tiny, charming Eastern Shore hamlet of St. Michaels, Md.
To have a sense of Baines, you may need a feel for the Eastern Shore. Once you cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, everything is different. The land is dead flat; the corn, soybean, melon, strawberry and tomato fields are punctuated only by chicken houses, pig pens, barns and farmhouses. The small towns such as Denton, Bridgeville, Dagsboro, Selbyville and St. Michaels seem not to have changed in 40 years. Maybe more. To some, this world of farmers and watermen is catatonic. To others, it's the heart of having roots.
People on the Delmarva Peninsula, the solid ones anyway, don't say much. Dignity, pride in your work, loyalty to friends and stoicism in hard times are core virtues. No oysterman with his nets to tend or farmer with hogs to slop could be more methodical in his daily routine than Baines.
"He watches his [hitting] videos all day long," says reliever Jesse Orosco. When Baines is not studying his swing, he's lifting weights, taking batting practice or shagging flies. Shagging flies? You never know when you might be needed in an emergency.
"As you get older, it takes more work off the field to get on the field," says Baines, who has endured two bad knees for a decade. "Once you lose all your cartilage, it's basically bone on bone from then on. If you tear or break something, it can heal. But if you lose something they can't replace, it's gone forever."
For Baines, baseball began as a passion but, over 20 years, has become an arduous but rewarding science. "Harold is a professional hitter who, by working and getting smarter, has become a great hitter," says Hendricks.
Once, Baines was the definition of a prodigy. Bill Veeck saw his beautiful flowing swing in Little League, then, six years later, made him the No. 1 pick in the draft even though, at St. Michaels High, Baines played only 12 games his senior year. That's making a strong first impression.
Baines might have stopped with natural talent. Yet, as he got older, changed teams five times, battled injuries and was forced to play a platoon role, he made himself better. In the first 13 years, Baines hit .286 with 21 homers and 95 RBI per 600 at bats. Since 1993, he has hit .307 and averaged 29 homers and 110 RBI per 600 at bats!
"You get wiser as you get older," says Baines.
Sometimes that simply means taking it easy on his knees on turf fields, even to the point of not standing around the batting cage kibitzing. In the '80s, he added weightlifting to his regimen. Everywhere he has been, he has added a piece to the hitting puzzle. Larry Doby taught him how to pull the ball. In the '90s, he learned to identify his recurring flaws; that helped him correct them faster. When he cocks his head at an angle, "Everything flies open." When his leg kick isn't high enough, "I get too quick and stride too far." Somewhere along the way, Baines even developed a high-kick stride, reminiscent of Mel Ott and Sadaharu Oh, except that Baines arches his calf and points his toe like a showgirl doing a graceful slow-motion dance.
"I have an unorthodox swing, so I have to be a big video watcher of myself," he says. "It's hard to hold your head still when your legs are flying all over the place."
Famous hitting coach Charlie Lau helped him study pitchers, especially how and where they would work him in crucial situations. Consequently, Baines has become a superb guess hitter in the clutch. Recently, he hit a 430-foot, three-run late-inning homer against Yankees lefty Mike Stanton.
"Four breaking balls, then a fastball," said Baines. "To be honest, I was looking for that fastball." What had he spotted? Let Stanton wonder.
"The book on me has never changed--'in' for effect, then soft away," says Baines. "What I try to do hasn't changed either. I'm looking for the ball middle-away, trying to keep it in front of me, stay inside the ball. Then, try to see the ball hit the bat. They say it's impossible. I say I've seen it."
At 40, what does the future hold? Any goals, Harold? The Hall of Fame or 3,000 hits? "I want a ring," says Baines, who has a .321 career average in six postseason series but has never won a World Series. "If we care about Harold," says one of his friends on the Orioles, "we should try to trade him to an American League contender--like the Indians, now that [DH] Wil Cordero is hurt. Let him have one more shot at the World Series. Maybe we could get a prospect or a relief pitcher for him. Then, we can re-sign Harold again for next season."
Can it be that simple? Maybe. Baines says, "I'll play out the season if I'm traded." Would he play baseball next year? "Depends on how far I have to go to play it. If it's not [close to] home, I'll be crabbing. But I don't like crabbing that much."
If the Orioles can make a decent trade for Baines, they should. If they can't, they should try to re-sign him to a long-term--yes, long-term--contract during this season. Why give a 40-year-old a multiyear deal?
"There's no risk in signing Baines to a long-term [deal]," says Manager Ray Miller. "There is no way a man as dignified and classy as Harold would keep playing just for the money. He'd retire."
Please, Harold, don't even think that terrible word "retire." Some of us slow learners are just starting to enjoy you.
Home runs 367
Runs batted in 1,543
Batting average .292
Harold Baines has played with the White Sox, Rangers, A's and Orioles.
CAPTION: Harold Baines has watched many homers leave park in latter years of his career.