Now and always, Cooperstown celebrates baseball at its best

Perez: Baines played with a lot of dignity (1:15)

Mike Petriello explains how Harold Baines' election to the Hall of Fame reveals flaws in the voting process, while Eduardo Perez says it's time to celebrate his election. (1:15)

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- With a quiet demeanor, a humble attitude and a workmanlike approach to his craft, Harold Baines has never quite seemed like a man of his time, but one long before it. In the end, all of those qualities make Cooperstown the perfect place to immortalize his baseball career.

Baines is a Hemingway hero walking among us. He is indeed quiet and, as he will admit, shy. But as a man of few words, when he speaks, his message has meaning. His work habits as a professional hitter gave birth to the consistency that marked him. He is a man who lives according to values that were imbued upon him by his community and his family from the time he was born. And, like Hemingway's Robert Jordan and Frederic Henry, he keeps his emotions close to the vest.

"I'm not an emotional man, except when it comes to family," Baines said during his speech Sunday, when he, and five others, were enshrined in the spiritual home of baseball. He said those words immediately before his voice cracked, because he was about to speak of his father and then directly to his family out in the seats.

On Sunday, this simple man from a small town on the Eastern Shore of Maryland was given the highest honor in his profession, joining 2019's six-man Hall of Fame class that brings the total membership up to 329 inductees, including 232 players. As Jane Forbes Clark, the Hall of Fame's chairman of the board of directors, pointed out, that marks Baines and the other inductees part of the top 1 percent of all players who have ever donned a big league uniform.

It was a weekend for small-town men, several of whom spoke to the essential roles of family and community in their rise to baseball's highest honor. It was a weekend for the specialists who have become such an integral part of the modern game. It was, strangely enough, a weekend for Norman Rockwell. It was a weekend for internationalism, now an annual trait of induction weekend, with fans flocking to Cooperstown from all four sides of the nation, and beyond.

More than anything, it was a weekend to celebrate all that is good in the game, and all that is good about the men whose plaques now hang in the hallowed halls of baseball's Hall of Fame. And, yes, Harold Baines is an exemplar of what Cooperstown is all about, whether you wanted him there or not.

A bad reaction

To fully appreciate Baines' weekend, you have to remember the long road that took him to Cooperstown, one that seemed to be permanently closed. When Baines was announced as an inductee this past December, after being voted in by a veterans committee that included a manager (Tony LaRussa) and an owner (Jerry Reinsdorf) who both adore him, it unleashed a torrent of rip jobs across the baseball branches of social media and the internet.

Not everyone was on board with the selection of Lee Smith, either, but the majority of the vitriol was directed at Baines. The reactions used pointed words, saying the Hall was "cheapened" or was "diminished" by the addition of him. The tenor of the response bordered on vicious, and led to some weird moments.

"I think you have to ask [LaRussa and Reinsdorf]," Baines said at the winter meetings. "They know what I feel about them. They're very special to me. It probably helped me, to be honest. But our friendship goes further than the game of baseball."

To be sure, you can't really construct a convincing analytical argument in favor of Baines' selection, unless you are willing to open the doors wide open and allow the floodgates to pour in a lot of good players who have been passed over in elections past. He's not the worst Hall of Fame electee, according to most leading metrics, but he's in the lower tier. The defenses of his selection have tended to favor anecdotal evidence and cherry-picked numbers.

There are lots of players on Baines' performance level or better who never got in. Never got close. And if Baines had not been selected, it wouldn't have merited more than a passing mention in any story related to the topic. Yet all the negativity that sprung from Baines' selection obscures an essential thing: He was really good, and so, too, were all those players who might fall somewhere under the arbitrary line you might want to draw that declares Hall worthiness, and wherever it is that Baines resides.

"I was very surprised," Baines admitted. "I wasn't sitting home worried about it because it wasn't anything I could control. I don't think any player plays this game to go to the Hall of Fame. I'm very grateful."

It's not the Hall of Good, though, a fact that detractors love to point out. If you want to be tough about it, you can point out that the thing about the Hall of Fame is that once you're in, you're in. Debate until you're blue in the face. No one has ever been kicked out.

More gently, you might consider this: There is a reason why those who advocated for Baines felt so strongly, why they lobbied for a player who never in a million years would have lobbied for himself. As lacking as his performance record might be in Hall of Fame markers, Baines is rich in qualities that men in power value a great deal and, frankly, that much of we, as society, admire. You can't express it in metrics, and you might make the fair point that these traits don't make a player a Hall of Famer, but you can't deny that these traits are what landed him in Cooperstown on Sunday.

People will continue to pick apart the Baines selection and others they don't agree with. Books will be written about it. On the web, there is already a virtual buffet of listicles about "worst Hall of Fame selections." Most of those leave out the fact that there really isn't a bad player in the Hall of Fame. We should all be so bad.

Anyway, the pairing of Smith and Baines on that day in December and later through a number of promotional events in Chicago proved to be ideal.

"The weird thing is, when we both got the call and went to Vegas, the [Hall representative] said it's the best contrast of guys," Smith said. "He said, 'We can't get Harold to say anything, and you won't be quiet.'"

Baseball's Rembrandt

A few hours to the east of Cooperstown is a little town in Massachusetts called Stockbridge. It's a resort town in the Berkshires best known as the final home and workplace of famed artist Rockwell. (It's also known, if less so, for being the setting of Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant.")

Rockwell's paintings graced the covers of the Saturday Evening Post for decades, when that publication held immense sway in the national culture. Rockwell painted stories, caught in an image, of commonplace people doing commonplace things, but with such an earnestness of spirit that the work still stirs an unrealistic kind of nostalgia for many people in remembrance of a world that never really existed.

Cooperstown, in its way, kind of fills the same role in American culture. The Hall of Fame boasts of three Rockwell works in its collection, including "The Three Umpires," which currently hangs in the art gallery of the museum. Rockwell dabbled a lot in baseball, which could hardly have been avoided given those who paid for his work and the note he was expected to strike for all those magazine covers.

Rockwell's name is often invoked when it comes to descriptions of Cooperstown as having a straight-off-of-a-1950s-postcard quality as a quintessential small town. In fact, on the morning of the inductions, the New York Times quoted Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman as saying, "It has that Norman Rockwell-type feel for me."

One way to interpret that is to say that Cooperstown, at least on induction weekend, is a kind of fantasy. Rockwell, as a commercial artist, was selling fantasy and he did it better than almost anyone. But there were lots of people whom Rockwell didn't depict in his best-known work, largely because that is what was asked of him by his clients. That changed later on, after his Saturday Evening Post career ended. But the works of Americana that drive so much adoration and stir such a powerful nostalgia are largely fantastic in nature.

The Hall of Fame is like that, too. The plaques hanging in the gallery recount the feats of men who were far from perfect as human beings. They drop numbers that are out of context. They make everyone sound as if they walked directly off the pages of a book of mythology. That is the product the Hall is selling, perhaps best exemplified by the Saturday parade in which all returning Hall of Famers ride down Main Street between rows of adoring fans, trapped along the sidewalks with impenetrable barricades.

Baines' plaque reads as such: "Respected and clutch left-handed hitter whose professional approach and humble demeanor made him one of the most consistent and reliable players of the 1980s and 1990s." Then it lists some of his awards and statistical achievements, such his 2,866 hits and 1,628 RBIs, numbers largely compiled while serving as one of the game's most prolific designated hitters, a role he landed because of chronic knee trouble.

"In my case, I couldn't go [out onto the field for defense]," Baines said. "Because of my injuries. That made it a little bit easier in the beginning to concentrate on my role. I couldn't help the team defensively. That made it a little bit easier for me -- that's the only way I could help the team."

Think of Rockwell painting Baines at the plate. He had a certain flair with Chicago topics. The fans around him would be going berserk, jeering and twisting and laughing and yelling. The catcher would have a wry smile on his face. But Baines would be standing there, front foot raised as he always did when he was about to unleash his beautiful swing, and the expression on his face would be one of utter stoicism.

"Harold, in his own way, he makes his point," gregarious new Hall of Famer Smith said. "He's been getting on me a little bit about talking too much."

No, it wasn't just Baines who, in this class, would have made a perfect subject for Rockwell.

Overlooked as always

In the museum of the Hall of Fame, they set up exhibits each year with artifacts from the careers for each of the new inductees. In Baines' display, there is a White Sox jersey of 1983 vintage, a couple of small medallions he won for being named Designated Hitter of the Year -- an award now named after Edgar Martinez, with whom Baines shared the stage Sunday. And there was an old copy of Baseball Digest, with a picture of Baines on the cover and a caption that read, "One of baseball's most overlooked stars."

Baines wasn't written about often because he wasn't quotable. It was his choice. The most oft-repeated story of the weekend was about Baines hitting the winning homer of an epic-length game played in bad weather. After, he was asked about the conditions and how he must have really hit the ball hard. "Evidently," Baines said. And that was the media conference. It became a kind of nickname for him, too, and last week the White Sox announced the availability of some new Baines bobbleheads marking his enshrinement. They will have that one-word quotation: "Evidently."

"During my career, I acquired a reputation as someone who didn't say much," Baines joked during his speech Sunday. "I'm not sure why."

He is very much as Hemingway would have written him and Rockwell might have painted him, though the portrait would have left any raw displays of emotion to the side characters. Baines is from and still resides in the small tourist town of St. Michaels, Maryland. It's where his father, Linwood Baines Jr., a bricklayer who was a good athlete in his own right, lived from the age of 9 until he passed in 2014 at the age of 77.

Baines was brought in to tour the Hall of Fame earlier this year, as all the candidates are. They get to see relics from baseball history and their own careers. They see the spots where their plaques will be hung and they sign the backing. Baines, it was reported, grew a little misty when it was suggested his plaque will reside about 20 feet from Babe Ruth's. Still, when asked whether he sought out any particular great during his visit, a favorite player or hero, he simply said, "No."

But then he went on, "My idol is my father. No disrespect to all the Hall of Famers that are there. But my idol is my father."

Linwood Baines Jr. lived a long life and got to see his son grow into one of the most respected members of his profession. He got to see him get all those hits and RBIs, post an .820 career OPS that rose to .838 with runners in scoring position and .862 in high-leverage spots. He got to see him challenge the 3,000-hit milestone, which he surely would have gotten if not for the injuries and the labor strife during his career. He got to see him hit .324 with five homers and 16 RBIs with an .888 OPS in 31 postseason games.

But for Harold, that's all sidebar. It was most important that his father got to see him marry and start a family of his own. He got to see him remain a part of the St. Michaels community and become the man he would have had him be.

"I know I made him proud on the baseball field," Baines said. "But I know I made him prouder as the man, the husband, the father, the teammate and the friend I have become."

Does any of this change your mind about whether Baines belongs in Cooperstown? Should it? Of course not. But can you really sit there and say that this man's presence "cheapens" the institution? Too bad, bucko, because that door only swings one way.

Induction weekend

The scenes are always the same, even if the MLB merchandise they are donning morphs each year with the identities of those being inducted into the Hall. This year, the novelty shops were heavy in Mariano Rivera gear. Baines was represented, too, though you had to dig for his stuff. The shop-owners know each year who is most likely to butter their bread.

Former major leaguers are always around as well, beside the exclusives staying at The Otesaga Resort Hotel. This year, Bill Madlock was signing at a table near the driveway at Doubleday Field. Both Frank Thomases were on hand -- the Big Hurt, at the resort, as a Hall of Famer, and the original one, who mashed for the Pirates in the 1950s and played for the early woeful Mets. Denny McLain was back, as was Pete Rose. Jim Leyritz was holding court down the street from wrestling's Jimmy "The Mouth of the South" Hart. The actor who played John Kinsella in "Field of Dreams" set up a table at the corner of Main and Pioneer and appeared to draw very well.

As fun as the people- and player-watching are in Cooperstown, it still all comes down to the ceremony on Sunday. These are the moments that are preserved and remembered and replayed again and again in the future whenever a Hall of Famer is mentioned. For Baines, it has been the source of much consternation over the past few months.

"I've played in front of thousands of people, so I can handle that part of it," Baines said the day before the ceremony. "I'm a shy guy. So I don't like to speak. So that's going to be the tough thing. But I'm speaking about people I care about, so that should be a little easier."

The absence of Roy Halladay was felt, beginning with a very emotional video played marking his career that featured close friend Chris Carpenter. One person who didn't see it was Halladay's widow, Brandy, who gave the speech. Knowing she'd have to take the podium in a few minutes, she simply couldn't watch.

"Maybe someone can send it to me," she joked at the beginning of her roughly seven-minute speech. There were people wiping away tears all through the crowd, and many others fighting off lumps in their throat. Brandy Halladay grew emotional, of course, but held it together. And she more than once alluded to all the Hall of Famers sitting beside her on the stage, recounting just how supportive everyone had been. Roy is now an immortal in the sport, and the Halladays have found yet another new baseball family.

"I can't tell you how many hugs I've gotten," she said. "Anybody who thinks baseball isn't a family has never been involved in baseball."

It was a heroic performance and in a rather surprising twist, it was Brandy Halladay who did more than anyone to humanize the players who in Cooperstown are elevated to the status of legend.

"The message I wanted to convey," Brandy said afterward, "is that Roy was a very normal person with an exceptionally amazing job. These men, who are out there doing those amazing things, they are still real people. They still have feelings, still have families. They still struggle.

"So many of the guys I've known through my life through baseball, they work so hard to hide that. I know Roy did. Sometimes it's hard to present the image you know everybody wants to see. It's also hard to be judged by what people expect of you. I think it's important that we don't sensationalize or idealize what baseball players are."

Roy Halladay was from suburban Denver. Baines, as mentioned, resides in tiny St. Michaels. Lee Smith is from Castle, Louisiana, of which he joked, "You think Cooperstown is small, you've never been to Castle." Mariano Rivera is from Puerto Caimito, Panama, a small fishing village near Panama City, where he worked on his father's boat. Martinez is from Dorado, Puerto Rico, a good-sized municipality west of San Juan, and lived in the neighborhood of Maguayo. Mike Mussina is from Williamsport, Pennsylvania -- home of the Little League World Series.

Hall of Famers can truly come from anywhere. And for all the thought we put into what team a new Hall of Famer will honor with his cap -- not an issue for the two new one-team members, Rivera and Martinez -- the players represent so much more than that. They represent colleges, towns, regions, countries and families.

"From teachers to coaches to town residents, who showed me both kindness and discipline, I thank you for all you've done for me," Baines said during his speech. Later, he added, "I cannot ever express enough appreciation for St. Michaels. It still remains my home to this day as I live there with my wife and family."

Never is that sentiment more apparent and more true than it is each summer in Cooperstown. And in making those points, Smith and Baines and the others are helping the community in which, in a sense, they will now reside forever. Every street between Main Street and the sports complex in Cooperstown is lined with lemonade stands and beverage stations and tables where you can get grilled food. Most of it goes to help the students who live in Cooperstown year around.

As for the speeches, no one could possibly rival Brandy Halladay when it came to bravery and emotional impact. One of her first lines was, "This speech is not mine to give." But she gave it anyway and no one will forget it.

"Really a great lady," Smith said. "It's been awesome to get to know her and her sons. It had to be tough. It's unbelievable how she handled it."

If not for the bittersweet circumstances of the Halladay family, we might be celebrating the bravery of Baines. Here was a shy man who had spent his life avoiding the media spotlight, who didn't like attention and who feared nothing -- except for public speaking. Imagine being that person and stepping onto a stage with thousands of people rolled out before you and knowing countless more are trained on you via television or some other gadget.

Baines did just fine, speaking for about nine and a half minutes after joking that the other players were timing him because they were betting on just how short his speech would be. But it wasn't that short because he wasn't speaking of himself. There were a lot of people to thank and appreciate, in the game and out of it, even though Baines is man of deeds, not speeches.

"I thought it would be a lot tougher than it was," a relieved Baines said after his speech. "Especially toward the end, when I talked about my father. I got through that pretty well and was proud of myself. I started off my speech talking about community, which is very big to me."

All the players sounded such notes Sunday, as they always do. For every player who goes into the Hall of Fame, there is a tremendous network of parents, siblings, coaches, spouses, managers, teammates and predecessors who helped them along. Those are the people whom induction day is for. And that's why it takes a truly cynical soul to begrudge anyone who has made it over the threshold and into the plaque gallery.

Where the game is always good, and so are we

Induction weekend was as always a celebration, of Baines and the others. It was just as magical as every weekend that unfolds over these precious days of summer. And for those new members of baseball's most elite fraternity, whose plaques are left behind even as they make their way back home, that celebration never really ends. They are in the club, and they are welcome back every summer. In fact, 58 Hall of Famers were in Cooperstown during this broiling weekend, the most living Hall of Famers ever in one place at one time.

"It's very overwhelming," Baines said, in his concise way. "I'm very happy to be a part of it."

What was being celebrated? WAR? Win probability added? OPS? No, those are the tools for before the election, but in Cooperstown, they are rendered obsolete. What's left is all that is good in these players, and more important, in the game itself. We were celebrating the inductees for what they did do, not what they didn't do.

Going last, as always, Rivera summed up the theme for the weekend, saying, "Baseball is a team sport. You cannot do it alone."

All of those who helped the new Hall of Famers find their place in the Hall of Fame are celebrating. But you have to be especially happy for the small towns, because there is a place for their children on the shores of Lake Otesaga. There always has been, but now those villages and hamlets can be in the Caribbean or Central America or Canada or the Pacific Rim. You can come from anywhere now and end up in Cooperstown.

On this weekend, we are reminded again of all that is good in the game. We are reminded that the game is available to more people than ever. And because of that, the best chapters for the sport might well have not yet been written. The Hall of Fame reminds us of where we've been, and of the progress we've made. And, best of all, every induction weekend in Cooperstown reminds us of who we are when we're at our best.