Kind adults never admit it to small children, but there actually is such a thing as a dumb question. Asking whether Tim Raines was one of the 50 best players of all time is not a dumb question. Asking whether he was one of the five best left fielders of all time is not a dumb question. Asking whether the man is a Hall of Famer is, in fact, a dumb question, if it comes from anyone who knows baseball well enough to have a vote. It's like a cosmologist asking whether the stars move around a fixed earth.
Because Hall of Fame ballots are now making their way to the electorate, and because Raines is eligible for election for the first time, it is a good time to point this out. Despite having absolutely no chance of getting a phone call from Cooperstown in January, when the returns are in, Raines is not a marginal case. He was better than Tony Gwynn, Paul Molitor, and Kirby Puckett. These three were elected their first time on the ballot this decade. "Rock" should join them.
How good was Raines? At his peak, from 1983 to 1987, he hit .318 AVG/.406 OBA/.467 SLG. This was, given the time, as valuable as the .330/.442/.552 line Colorado first baseman Todd Helton has put up over the last five years. Raines threw in 355 stolen bases and terrific defense as well. He wasn't just good, or even great. He was dominant. For half a decade, he was perhaps the best player in the National League. Manny Ramirez has never had a year as good as any of Raines's five best.
He wasn't just great for a brief time. He played 23 years, long enough to have reached base 22 more times than Gwynn, despite having racked up 536 fewer hits, and long enough to steal 808 bases, fifth all time. And he wasn't just a player who put up gaudy statistics. From the Montreal Expos to the Chicago White Sox to the dynastic Yankees, his teams were always in contention, sometimes great, and always keyed by his fierce, joyous, and devastating play. After a brush with cocaine early in his career — which he handled with far greater strength and public honesty than any player has yet handled his steroid use, it should be noted — he matured into a universally respected leader.
Raines isn't as revered as vastly inferior players, such as Molitor and Ryne Sandberg, for several irrelevant reasons. The main one is that he spent his prime in a pitcher's park during an era of balanced offense, but there are more. He drew a lot of walks and didn't hit many home runs; his career coincided with that of the similar but even better Rickey Henderson, and he didn't reach any milestone numbers, such as 3,000 hits. He spent the last years of his career as a part-time player, lost parts of four seasons to two players' strikes and illegal collusion by owners, and never won the Most Valuable Player award.
Not one of these has anything at all to do with how good a ballplayer he was. If fans and MVP voters failed to recognize how good Raines was 20 years ago, it doesn't follow that Hall of Fame voters have to do so today. The Hall of Fame is not supposed to merely codify reputations; it is supposed to reward merit and recognize greatness. By any meaningful standard, that isn't preposterously stupid. ("Did this player reach 3,000 hits or 500 home runs?" would count.) Raines was truly and immensely great — better than Gwynn, better than Ramirez, better than Reggie Jackson and Derek Jeter and Roberto Clemente, among others. In better circumstances, he would have been an icon.
Hall of Fame voters can't right the past, but they can do the right thing and recognize Raines's greatness. To the dismay of those of us who appreciate just how great Raines was, they will not this year, but no one ought to give up hope that they one day will. Even dumb questions have answers.