Today, seven-time All-Star Tim Raines turns 55 years old. "Rock" was one of the best players in baseball in the '80s, stole a phenomenal 808 bases (fifth-best all-time), and reached base via a hit or walk an incredible 3,935 times (a higher total than Tony Gwynn) during his 23-year career, accumulating 69.1 rWAR. He belongs in the Hall of Fame. It's a sham that he's not yet. If you're unsure about it, please read Jay Jaffe, Keith Law, or Jonah Keri. Dude was awesome.
While Raines rose to prominence with the dearly departed Montreal Expos and will rightfully enter Cooperstown one day with that stylish "M" on his hat, he spent three years of his career later on with the New York Yankees, where he was a valued member and team leader of a group that won two World Series titles during his tenure. He had played 17 years in the majors before at last winning a championship in '96, and it was a thrill for him to finally reach the top. Manager Joe Torre figured out just the right spots to put Raines in, and he did pretty damn well for a guy entering his late 30s. When one thinks of the critical role players who simply fit on those teams, Raines is justifiably one of the first to come to mind.
Some people might forget that Raines didn't come straight to the Yankees from Montreal. After a brilliant decade in Montreal, the Expos traded him to the White Sox prior to the '91 season, where he was still quite productive with a .283/.375/.407 triple slash, 143 steals, and a 113 OPS+ for some very good teams. The '93 squad won the AL West and brought Raines back to the playoffs for the first time in 12 years, where he hit .444, though they fell in six games to the eventual champion Blue Jays in the ALCS. Chicago was also leading the newly-created AL Central at the time of the 1994 Player's Strike; the Expos weren't the only beloved member of the Montreal family to get screwed.
In December 1995, the Yankees acquired the veteran outfielder from the Pale Hose in exchange for a player to be named later who never actually made even a minor league appearance for Chicago (Blaise Kozeniewski). It was a bit of a salary dump, and the Yankees were happy to add Raines to an outfield that already including the talented Paul O'Neill and rising star Bernie Williams. He didn't get off to the best start though, at least in terms of health. His missed the first week and a half due to injury, then after hitting .286/.390/.405 through 41 games, another blow took him out of the lineup for three months.
Fortunately, the Yankees were able to fill the void with a left field corps that eventually included fellow '80s star Darryl Strawberry, and when Raines returned in mid-August, he didn't miss a beat. He slugged .513 the rest of the way to bring his '96 numbers up to .284/.383/.468 with a 118 wRC+ in 59 games. Raines had a seven-game hitting streak in the '96 playoffs as the Yankees stunned the baseball world by beating the defending champion Braves in the Fall Classic, including a thrilling a six-run rally in Game 4, concluded in extra innings when Raines humorously fell while catching the final out. "Rock" finally had his World Series ring.
In '97, Raines missed two and a half months due to a hamstring strain, but he still managed to be productive yet again. He hit .321/.403/.454 with 20 doubles and a 130 wRC+, his best mark in four years. The Yankees won four more games than they did in '96, though an even better Orioles squad forced them to settle for the AL Wild Card. In Game 1 of the ALDS against the Indians, Raines was part of an incredible turn of events. Cleveland pummeled David Cone and took a 5-0 lead, but the Yankees battled back and in the seventh inning, Raines belted a two-run homer to tie the score, sending the crowd into a frenzy. It was quite the shock, as Raines only hit 24 more homers in 449 career games after his 35th birthday. Improbably, Derek Jeter and Paul O'Neill followed consecutively with homers of their own, the first time in playoff history that a team went back-to-back-to-back. That would be the only thrill of the '97 playoffs for the Yankees though, as they went on to lose the series in five games.
The Yankees returned with a vengeance in '98 with perhaps the greatest season in the history of baseball. They famously won 114 games, then added 11 more in the playoffs for 125 total and their 24th World Series title. Raines had been re-signed prior to the season, and he responded with his healthiest season in pinstripes. He played in 109 games, batting .290/.395/.383 with a 113 wRC+. He also reached a personal milestone in--where else?--Montreal, when in an interleague game he stole the 800th base of his career. The Olympic Stadium crowd erupted and gave Raines a huge ovation:
Raines always cracked up his teammates in the clubhouse and became close friends with a young shortstop named Derek Jeter, whose early success quickly found him fame. Jeter always felt Raines was one of his closest mentors, and Jeter's professionalism throughout his career was an unsurprising result of this kinship. (Raines later returned for Derek Jeter Day in 2014 when the eventual Yankees captain was honored.) When Raines departed the Yankees after the season for the A's and was diagnosed with lupus in the middle of the 1999 season, his teammates were devastated. Upon his return while inactive to Yankee Stadium with the A's, his teammates came out on the field and hugged him.
Overall, Raines hit .299/.395/.429 with 43 doubles, 18 homers, and a 115 OPS+ in 242 games as a Yankee, exhibiting the same astute plate discipline that made him such a good hitters in years past. Of course, his impact went beyond numbers. Raines wasn't just another nice guy to have off the bench during his Yankees years--he was extremely popular in the clubhouse. Fans recognized that the Yankees were lucky to have such an accomplished yet still quite helpful veteran available to their team.
Here's to you, Rock, and here's hoping the Hall of Fame welcomes you with open arms very soon.