Peter Handrinos is a frequent
contributor to Scout.com and author of the upcoming ‘The Best New York
Sports Arguments: The 100 Most Controversial, Debatable Questions for
Tim Raines wasn’t the most
prolific base stealer in Major League history, but he may have been the most
effective thief the game’s ever seen.
Four players stole more bases than
Raines’ 808 total, but it’s Raines’ 84.7% stolen base success that rates #1 on
the all time list among those with more than 300 career bases. To put that mark
into perspective, consider that Rickey Henderson and Hall-of-Famer Lou Brock put
up career rates of 80.7% and 75.3%, which would be the equivalent of falling
behind a career .300 hitter with .286 and .267 averages or a 500-home run hitter
with 476 and 445 longballs. Henderson and Brock were among the best of
base runners, but Raines may have been the very best.
Add that heady speed to a hitting
that surpassed legends like Brock and Pete Rose in categories like on-base
percentage (.385), slugging (.425) & home runs (170), and you have the
makings of a Hall of Fame-caliber career as a leadoff man. Raines may not have
earned Rickey-type headlines while playing 12 years in out-of-the way Montreal,
but the seven-time All Star may well have been Henderson’s overall equal as a
player for the 1980’s or any other era.
The jovial, well-liked Raines
currently serves as a coach / base running instructor for the 2005 World
Champion White Sox. Recently, he discussed leading off:
When you were growing up in
Florida, you were a superb all-around
athlete who was highly recruited in both baseball and football -
How did you make the right
(chuckles) I loved football and I
was highly recruited, but I basically chose baseball because of my father’s
example. He played semi-pro ball when my brothers and I were growing up, and
that got us started. I just loved playing the game.
Also, when I was 16, 17 years old,
Joe Morgan won his MVP awards, and that really got me, in particular,
interested. He wasn’t the biggest guy in the world, but he had some pop in his
bat, could steal bases, and could field his position [at second base], so I kind
of modeled my game after him.
Was there a particular time when
you started to establish yourself as an exceptional base stealer?
It’s funny, I didn’t put any
special emphasis on that until, I want to say, my second season in the Minors
, in Double-A Memphis. By the time I was first called up to
Montreal, in September ’79, I knew, at the
very least, I could establish myself as a pinch runner. I felt I could keep up
with speedy guys like Ron LeFlore and Rodney Scott, who were batting #1 and #2
at the time.
Soon enough, you were hitting
leadoff for the Expos. Was your approach at the plate different than it would
have been if you were hitting further down in the
Well, before Ron left for Chicago,
he’d already gotten me thinking about my approach at the plate, just in the way
that he was looking to get on though either a walk or a hit. It didn’t matter to
him, and I said, ‘Hey, that makes a lot of sense’. I knew that, anyway, from a
young age, but my early days in the Majors really reinforced the thought.
Was my hitting approach different
than it would have been different than it would have been in the #5 spot?
Probably. I measured my success in the times I got on base and, even more
importantly, in scoring runs. Batting average and power numbers were very nice,
but the main idea was to score more runs than the other guys.
Do you believe there’s a special
mental poise involved in leadoff hitting?
I’d say so. It’s important to
force pitchers to show all their pitches, so very often you have to go deep into
counts. Even good hitters can get a bit nervous about hitting with two strikes
and they may not have the same kind of patience. Either that, or they’re just
not willing to cut down on their swing to make contact. Me, personally, I wasn’t
too worried about that.
With guys like Andre Dawson and
Gary Carter on your early Expos teams, did that make you more comfortable as a
No doubt about it. I knew what
they could do in hitting for power and driving in runs, and it made me more
comfortable in concentrating in my switch hitting, on-base, steals, and base
running. I settled into the leadoff role relatively early, and I focused on
becoming the perfect leadoff guy.
How do you
Put it this way - I loved being a
guy that could disrupt a whole game. I loved the fact that, right off the bat,
pitchers were worrying, ‘I can’t walk Raines, but he can hit, too, and what if
he gets on base, he’ll mess up the infield defense . . .’ To me, that was the
heart of team-based offense, the way that the #1 hitter can shake things up for
the follow-up guys.
As fast as you were, you may have
been just as heady in the way you ran the bases. I’m sure you know that you had
one of the highest steal success rates of all time at
That’s when you have to talk about
the craft of base running.
It definitely starts with speed,
and I had a God-given gift in that, but it didn’t take me too long to realize it
wasn’t nearly enough. Maybe in my first or second year in
Montreal, I’d work with a first-base coach
by the name of Steve Burris, and he’d sit me down and go over his book on
pitchers. We’d talk about their throwing motions, their pickoff moves, their
times to the plate. He was one of the first to do that and, soon enough, I
started keeping my own book.
I have to say, as I became more
and more successful, I got pretty confident. When I’d face a new pitcher, for
instance, I’d intentionally take a bigger lead off first, just to challenge him
to throw back to the bag and see what he had. If he didn’t throw back enough,
that was fine, too, because it’d make it easier to steal.
Again, you were doing your best to
disrupt the game.
Exactly. Constantly disrupting the
defense, constantly setting the tempo. Running hard, forcing
When you did go for steals, what
was the difference between taking the bag and getting gunned down?
Oh, tenths of a second. Most of
the time, a split second, one way or the other, would be a lot.
I believe that, in those early
years, the Expos were one of the first teams to time pitchers’ motions, down to
tenths of a second, and that helped me look for steal opportunities. The exact
number, I believe was 1.3 seconds. If a pitcher couldn’t get through his motion
and get the ball to home plate in less than 1.3 seconds, I could almost always
take second with the right jump.
Were you stealing on the catchers
I felt I was stealing on pitchers,
mostly, not the catchers. If I was worried about a quick-release pitcher or a
strong-armed catcher, that’s when I would start focusing in on counts, looking
for spots where they might try to sneak in an off-speed pitch.
Because you were looking to gain
another fraction of a second that way.
Right. The idea is - if you can’t
gain an advantage in a pitcher’s motion, find something in a pitcher’s throw to
the plate. Off-speed pitches are just a bit slower but, more importantly,
they’re more likely to get down in the dirt, or at least force a catcher into a
How did you respond to pitchers’
new slide-steps in the ‘80’s?
Oh, that’s when they started
getting smart. Bruce Sutter was one of the first to come up with a
Most slide-step motions were about
1.1-1.2 [seconds]. Under those circumstances, I’d have to concentrate even more
on ‘tells’ in pitchers’ going to the plate, whether that be a twitch or a lean
or hand placement. Anything that told me how they were committing to home plate.
It could be any little advantage. Some pitchers, if you followed their eyes,
they gave themselves away. There were things they’d do - they didn’t even know
they were doing them.
Sometimes, on the bench, I’d ball
hands over my eyes, as if I was watching through a telescope, watching nothing
except the pitcher and his give-away’s. Me and him.
What pitchers stand out in your
mind as the toughest guys for you to steal on?
Generally, it was the lefties who
hung their leg in mid-motion, just waiting for me to make my move before they
committed themselves. It was almost a balk and we’d tell the umpires as much,
but they got away with it. The best of the best defensive pitchers repeated
their throwing motions in such a way that you couldn’t read their pickoff move
Fernando Valenzuela comes to mind.
Jimmy Key. Later, Andy Pettitte. Those guys could pick you off even if you
weren’t necessarily thinking of running. Nowadays, [Mark] Buehrle is doing a
good job against runners.
Who were the easiest guys to steal
Power pitchers with big windups.
Nolan [Ryan], [Dwight] Gooden, Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, those type of guys.
They generated velocity with their legs, so they couldn’t really couldn’t cut
down too much or slide-step.
With Clemens, it was funny. The
first few times I faced him, he tried to alter his motion and cut my leads off
the bag, but that threw him off own game, and he didn’t like that too much, so
he decided, ‘OK, I’m just gonna throw my pitch and strike out the batter’. And,
plenty of times he did - that’s how he dealt with runners!
Did you ever talk to your pitching
staffs about what you were doing as a base runner, or ask them what they were
trying to do against opposing runners?
Not really. I could be friends
with pitchers on my teams, and we had respect for each other as ball players,
but we didn’t talk about on-field stuff too much.
Did you rely much on your coaches
when you were out on the base paths?
Not really. Once I established
myself in the Majors, I made a point of learning the finer points on my own. I learned who had a great arm, how to
read contact off the bat, the different parks’ dimensions.
Good base running is about good
preparation and good instincts. It’s up to the player to know what to do in the
moment. That’s the game. My attitude is - if you’re waiting for a first base
coach to tell you to get back on a pickoff throw, or [waiting for] a third base
coach to tell you to advance, you’re going to be out, anyway.
As a coach today, I try to make
sure that players have their head in the game, and more than anything else, I
want them to know the difference between smart-aggressive and dumb-aggressive. I
think all our players know when certain situations call for them to try to
stretch out an extra-base hit or try for a steal. They don’t do it just for the
heck of it.
Well, the 2005 White Sox didn’t
steal very often, but when they did try for steals, very often, they were
If I may say so, I think our base
running really helped us win the championship. We won a lot of one-run games,
and it was because we were willing to take walks, play team ball, and take our
opportunities. We scored runs, sometimes, without a single hit in an inning, and
that made a difference.
Did steal statistics ever motivate
Not at all. I wanted to be an
all-around threat, in that I could be a good base runner as well as a good base
stealer, someone who knew how to take the extra base from first to third or
score from second on a single. That might not show up in the numbers, but it
would help us win. I took pride in being a team player.
Here’s another thing - I went for
a steal if, and only if, the situation called for it. If I ran around at will,
I’d probably have had multiple 100-steal seasons, but what’s the point in
padding individual numbers? I didn’t feel like I had to put up Rickey
[Henderson] or Vince Coleman-type numbers
for my teams to win. If anything, there were times I tried to get away from the
stolen base stats, just because I wanted to be known as a complete player. I
wanted them to say, ‘Tim Raines can do it all’.
Even so, today’s league leaders
might put up half the stolen bases a Rickey Henderson or a Tim Raines put up 20 years
ago. How do you see that change in the game?
(chuckles) You know where my heart
is on that. I don’t like it too much.
There is a different player out
there today, simple as that. A guy at first doesn’t necessarily have to think
about stealing and picking up extra bases too much, just because so many batters
are driving in runs through pure extra-base power.
I’d like to see more players who
can do everything - work a count, work a pitcher, tear up the base paths. The
only ones left, maybe, are guys like Ichiro [Suzuki], Juan Pierre, Scott Podsednik with the [White] Sox. They’re hard to find. That part of the game is
being lost in a home run era.
Do you think today’s Major
Leaguers don’t know as much about the craft in base stealing?
Well, there are some good ones out
there, but too many runners pass up opportunities to pressure their
As a coach, I try to say - be
smart-aggressive when you’re on base. Get into the details in pitchers’ motions
and pickoff moves. Do your best, always, to make the other guy stop you. Don’t
pull up before a base - force the fielders to make throws, then take advantage
of their mistakes. Also, take secondary leads. Take a lead after the pitch is
released, just to be ready for the ball being put in play.
I guess it’s easy to forget about
the physical punishment involved in your base running, too. How did ‘Rock’
Raines stay so resilient for so long?
That goes all the way back to my
football mentality. It didn’t bother me too much to take out a fielder on a
double play, go all out on a slide, run into a hard tag. In a way, I was a
football guy playing baseball!
A lot of it was natural gifts,
too. I was smaller than some, but I could stay strong without a lot of weight
lifting. I did do a lot of stretching, but I was blessed with a good
constitution. I missed some games, but generally, the more I played, the
stronger I got.
I’m sure you’ve heard the
expression ‘speed never slumps’. Is there something to that, or were there
periods when you were off your game as a runner?
Generally, I could stay effective
throughout the year. It wasn’t until I was in my late 30’s that I started to
lose half a step, and even then, I did my best to make up for it with even more
Can I ask a kind of silly
Tell me what you think when you
hear ‘hidden ball trick’.
Oh, that one. I don’t think anyone
ever tried that with me.
Not once, that I can remember.
I guess they figured it would be
showing me up.
Would they have been
If someone had ever tried to pull
that on me, it would motivate me even more. I believe I had a reputation as a
guy who kept his head in the game at all times. I hope most of my opponents
I guess the ultimate measure of
respect for a ball player is in the Hall of Fame ballot. How do you feel about
your chances? As you know, more than a few commentators believe you belong in
I’m very, very grateful for that.
I hope it’s true. I’m proud of my career as a player -it was
Some of my best years were in
Montreal and I enjoyed my time there, but
playing in that small market might have hurt my chances. It’s a tough question,
in a way. I guess I’m cautiously optimistic, that would be the way to say it.
(Editor’s note: Raines will be
eligible for Hall of Fame consideration for the first time following the 2007
The complete Table of Contents for
the ‘Baseball Men’ interview series can be found here.