What if ... Tim Raines had played longer in Montreal, boosting Hall credentials?

The annual announcement of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America balloting for the Baseball Hall of Fame always brings polar opposites in emotions: elected candidates thrilled yet humbled to be recognized among the game’s immortals and the lamentations of those bypassed or ignored who don’t understand why. In that way, voting results are much like the game - there are clear winners and losers. But debate about those not elected goes on long after the lucky party - in this case, Barry Larkin on Tuesday morning - beaming while putting on that Hall of Fame jersey during the morning-after press conference at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City.

For the fifth straight year, Tim Raines wasn’t elected, failing to reach the 75 percent needed to enter the hallowed halls at Cooperstown, N.Y. He’s still got another decade on the ballot to improve on the 48.7 percent of the vote he received, his strongest showing yet. Raines spent 12 of his 23 major league seasons with the Montreal Expos, who became the Nationals in 2005, and that lineage qualifies him as the central figure in this week’s edition of “What If?” Wednesday, where we examine a figure or event in the franchise’s history and wonder what might have happened if something had broken just a bit differently. This week, we tinker with baseball’s space/time continuum and wonder whether Raines’ bid for the Hall of Fame would have been strengthened if he’d spent more of his storied career with his original team, the Expos.

The Nationals have done a nice job of reaching back to their roots, recognizing Hall of Famers - and former Expos - Gary Carter and Andre Dawson for their contributions before the team was relocated to D.C. from Montreal before the 2005 season. Many believe Raines is Hall-worthy (I’m among them, though in the spirit of full disclosure, it’s only fair to point out that I’m not, nor never have been a BBWAA member; the organization has refused to admit MASNsports.com staffers because we’re owned by the teams we cover) and it’s hard to argue against a career in which he made seven All-Star teams, was voted MVP of the 1987 Mid-Summer Classic, won the 1986 National League batting title and a Silver Slugger, twice led the NL in runs scored and, for four straight years from 1981-84, was the league’s leader in stolen bases en route to the second-most thefts of all time. His 808 swipes were fifth all-time behind Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson, who stole 1,406. The rest of the top five - Henderson, Lou Brock (938), Billy Hamilton (912) and Ty Cobb (892) are already in Cooperstown, in fact.

Think of the things that usually qualify a player for the Hall of Fame, and Raines meets the criteria. He was a dominant player of his era, a feared leadoff hitter whose speed and acumen on the basepaths changed games, turning walks and singles into doubles, forcing pitchers to feed ensuing hitters fastballs so the catcher had a fighting chance and making strong-armed catchers look like receivers with cement for throwing limbs. He stands the test of durability, having played more than two decades, much of that time at a superior level. He may not have been the best left fielder of his era, but he was certainly his league’s top leadoff hitter - so that qualifies him for the best-at-his-position argument, if you extend discussion to role instead of position. He helped define his primary team, the Expos, and may have been the most recognizable player from north of the U.S./Canada border. If you’re more sabremetrically oriented, Raines’ WAR (wins above replacement) for his career stands at 64.6, 117th all-time, two places behind Willie McCovey, tied with Ozzie Smith and right ahead of Ernie Banks, all of whom already reside in the Hall of Fame.

So what problem do the voters have with Raines? For some, he’ll always be overshadowed by Henderson, who was also one of the most colorful, self-promoting players in the game’s history. It’s unfair to penalize Raines for not being as good as Henderson, however - especially when Raines’ achievements can stand on their own. Nor is it fair to hold against Raines that he played in the NL during an era when the AL had already adopted the designated hitter and become a league built on offense. And not speaking in third person as Henderson does should be a mark in Raines’ favor. But what may have held Raines’ candidacy back in the eyes of many voters is the curious path his career took once he left Montreal. Like Henderson, Raines changed teams with great regularity later in his career. Unlike Henderson, most of Raines’ crowning achievements came before he became a baseball gypsy, signing on to help out whatever team was willing to take a chance on him, hoping that there was still some gas left in the speedster’s tank.

Raines left Montreal in December 1990, when the Expos shipped him, pitcher Jeff Carter and a player to be named to the White Sox in exchange for outfielder Ivan Calderon and pitcher Barry Jones. Raines played 11 more seasons, but never again appeared as a league leader in any category, as he had in the NL. He stole 51 and 45 bases in his first two seasons on Chicago’s south side, then never again notched more than 21. Once a credible defender, his range diminished and he was mostly a part-time player by 1993, later spending time as a designated hitter. He filed for free agency in 1997 and signed with the Yankees, then the A’s, then the Yankees again before returning to Montreal in 2001. Late that season, he was dealt to the Orioles, where he played in the same outfield as his son, Tim Raines Jr., before finishing his career as a Marlin in 2002. He’s a guy who may have held on a few seasons too long, even if it was for love of the game.

But what if the Expos hadn’t traded him to the White Sox? Maybe his production wasn’t on par with what became the norm early in his career, but it’s possible Raines might have put together just enough seasons in Expos’ colors to be thought of as the franchise’s all-time best player, not just another stellar performer who passed through Montreal on the way to somewhere else. Maybe those statistics are enough with 15 or 16 strong years in one city. Maybe, instead of hopscotching across the country after getting his walking papers, Raines becomes more of a beloved, iconic player (though some voters will continue to view him as a one-dimensional player known only for his speed). Maybe those things make the kind of difference that pushes him to the magic threshold of 75 percent in the Hall of Fame voting sooner rather than later.

Raines will eventually make it to Cooperstown. At 52, he’s still young enough that he’ll be able to enjoy being the focus of an induction weekend. Just 26.3 percent more of the vote and he’s in. He’ll go in as an Expo, too, as it should be. But the wait may seem longer to Raines and his supporters than those nomadic years that characterized the waning seasons of a Hall-worthy career.

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