Thursday, January 19, 2017

Tim Raines - A Personal History

si.com photo

   It was a Saturday afternoon in late September of 1979 that I first saw Tim Raines.
Just a few days past his 20th birthday, he had been called up earlier that month and added to the expanded 40-man roster as a pinch runner as the Montreal Expos took part in my first pennant race.
   The Expos had been in a pennant race in 1973, but that was before I was old enough to appreciate meaningful September baseball.
   Given uniform number 60, Raines was called in to pinch run for Ellis Valentine after he led off the bottom of the 9th in a tie game with a single.  The Expos had lost to the Phillies the night before at Olympic Stadium, putting them two games back of the NL East-leading Pirates.  Quite simply, it was do or die for Montreal, and even though Valentine was a decent runner, Manager Dick Williams was pulling out all the stops to keep the Expos from being eliminated from post-season play after the Phils had tied the game in the top of the 9th.
   Slugger Larry Parrish laid down a bunt to advance Raines to 2nd, then Pitcher Rawley Eastwick's wild pitch moved the winning run to 3rd a batter later.  With Rusty Staub (re-acquired in July) about to pinch-hit for the Pitcher's spot, Philadelphia brought in southpaw Tug McGraw to face the left-hand hitting Staub. Williams countered with Dave Cash, a forgotten man who had come to Montreal with much fanfare as a free agent in 1977, but had lost his 2nd base job that year to Rodney Scott.
   Cash's single to right field scored Raines, giving the Expos the walk-off win.  With the Pirates losing in 13 innings to the Cubs, the Expos had pulled to within a game of the Bucs.
 
    In the late 1970s, Canadians were limited to two televised games per week - the regular Wednesday night Expos broadcast on CBC, and the weekend game of the week on NBC.  On this September weekend, however, CBC added both the Saturday and Sunday Expos games.  As a young fan who had followed the team closely, however, I had no idea who this young pinch runner was in those pre-Baseball America days.  And while the Expos always seemed to just fall short for the next half dozen years, one constant was this speedy outfielder.
      Throughout the 1980s, I tried to pattern my game after Raines.  I wore his number, and even tried to grow a moustache like his.  We had a couple of similarities - both of us were on the smaller side, both relied on speed, but other than that, that was about it.  There was little Raines could not do - he was not a big power hitter, of course, but he could work the count like few players in MLB history. Over the course of his 23 year career, he struck out more than he walked only once.  And then there was his 1983 line:
          G     PA   AB   R      H   2B   3B    HR  RBI   SB   CS   SO   BB    AVE OBP SLG OPS
156 720 615 133 183 32 8 11 71     90 14 97 70 .298 . 393 .429  .822

  This was in the midst of seven of the best consecutive offensive seasons by any player in MLB history.  Raines could seemingly get on base and steal second almost at will.  In 1987, when his season debut was delayed until May 1st because the owners thought they could get together and deny themselves the best free agents, Raines (without a spring training) went 4-5 with a walk, stolen base, and a game-winning grand slam. Raines, at his peak, could beat you in so many ways.  Early in his career, it was via the walk and stolen base; as he aged and matured as a hitter, Raines was shifted to the 3rd spot in the order,  and he became a dangerous hitter, posting a .955 OPS in 87.  His base-stealing talents were obvious, but he was a true student of the running game.  Many times, it appeared that the Catcher's throw had beaten Raines to second, but he would avoid the tag by sliding to the inside part of the bag.  Those smarts would allow him to swipe 40 consecutive bases later in his career.  Not gifted with a strong throwing arm, the Expos did have trouble finding a place for Raines to play.  He started out at 2nd, but was shifted to the outfield in his second season. His ability to get good reads on fly balls and his accurate arm allowed him to record 21 assists in 1983.
   Raines' drug difficulties in 1982 have been well documented.  It was a time when cocaine use was fairly rampant across the game, and his involvement likely cost him in the eyes of some Hall of Fame voters.  To his credit, with the help of teammate (and fellow Hall of Famer) Hawk Dawson, Raines took ownership of his addiction, got himself cleaned up, and was a model citizen for the rest of his career.

   The first half of the 80s were rollicking times at the Big Owe.  One of my memories of that time was driving home from my grandparents farm in Eastern Ontario (a four hour trip), listening to Dave Van Horne and Duke Snider calling the games on an AM radio station in Oshawa, ON, with the strains of The Happy Wanderer in the background during Van Horne's pre-game, as well as the Expos theme song:


   The mid-80s also ushered in a new era of sports broadcasting, with the advent of  TSN in Canada. Eager for programming, the new network dished out a huge slate of games of both the Expos and the Blue Jays. Now, we could see Raines' brilliance on a regular basis.  We take for granted today that we can watch every game of our team's coverage, but up until 1984, that wasn't the case.  It was a true novelty to have it, and with TSN's birth coinciding with the Blue Jays rise to pennant contender, it was as if a baseball fan had died and gone to heaven.

   All good things come to an end, however, and as the 80s came to a close, the Expos were no longer consistently competitive, and the Big O was no longer full.  Raines' 1987 was to be the high water mark of his career.  My playing days were coming to an end, and so was Raines' time as an Expo.    He continued to be a useful player into his 40s, but work and raising a family in the 90s gave me little time to follow him as closely has I had in his heyday.
 
   Raines has added to his considerable reputation with his work as a Blue Jays minor league instructor, and in my writing about Blue Jays prospects, I've had many players and people in the organization rave about his work.  His popularity with the players is obvious:










     Anthony Alford, who had a breakout season in 2015 under Raines' tutelage, had this to say about his mentor:
 I know he's one of the best guys you will ever meet. He's been awesome. Not only as an instructor, but also as a person. It's always a good time working with him. He makes everything fun. When you're having a bad day, he will find a way to make you smile. One of the most genuine guys I've ever been around. Everyone in the org loves him. I'm definitely a big fan of Rock.
   Jesse Goldberg-Strassler, the Lansing Lugnuts broadcaster and director of media relations, has watched Raines work with young Blue Jays prospects since 2012, and finds him "fascinating':
----- one of the greatest players in MLB history, and yet totally approachable, hilarious, and a pleasure to watch with the young players. I love whenever Rock comes to town.  
If you didn't know about his career, and you were only just meeting him, you'd have no idea that this relaxed, affable guy was one of the greatest leadoff hitters / base stealers of all time. And he's a heck of a ping-pong player.
   It was a long time coming, but Raines is finally going to Cooperstown.  His induction brought back a flood of memories for many, including Canada's Prime Minister:

Post a Comment