Chicago White Sox rightfielder Harold Baines was posing for pictures at Comiskey Park on Monday, Aug. 13, when a stray drive from a nearby pepper game conked him over the right eye. Suffering from dizziness and headaches, Baines missed the game that night, but the next night, even as his head continued to throb, he pounded Texas lefthander Frank Tanana for a single and triple. Baines still had a headache on Wednesday, when he rocked knuckle-bailer Charlie Hough for two singles, a triple and a homer. On Saturday he had two more home runs against Toronto.
The message here: You can conk Harold Baines, but you can't conquer him. Injured or healthy, Baines, 25, has been the hottest hitter in the American League the last three months. On May 25 Baines was batting .191, but since May 26 he has cruised along at .384 and built his season totals to a .309 average, 24 homers, 76 RBIs (15 of them gamers) and a league-best .552 slugging percentage, while quickening the pulse of everyone watching him. Night after night last week the organist played a two-note theme and the fans chanted "Har-old, Har-old."
Unfortunately, the White Sox were aw-ful, aw-ful. Despite Baines's hitting, they lost 9-3 to Tanana, 6-5 in 10 innings to Hough and two of three to the Blue Jays to fall from third place to fourth in the AL West, 5½ games behind Minnesota. All in all, the club's 59-63 record spelled collapse following a 1983 season in which Chicago went 99-63 and won the division by a league-record 20 games.
The White Sox' Cy Young Award winner, LaMarr Hoyt (24-10 in '83, 10-13 in '84), has been missing the corners. Their '83 Rookie of the Year, left-fielder Ron Kittle (100 RBIs, .254 last season, 60 RBIs, .216 this), has been swinging at bad pitches and missing the bad and the good. Their DH of the Year last season, Greg Luzinski, had 12 homers and 51 RBIs. following '83 numbers of 32 and 95, respectively.
No wonder manager Tony LaRussa has been wearing a sweat shirt with a picture of a mouse in a trap and the inscription HOW IN THE HELL DO YOU THINK MY DAY WENT? "We're still in there scratching," says LaRussa.
Thanks in no small part to Baines. In the on-deck circle he slowly dons gloves, applies pine tar and resin to the bat and takes a few languid swings. Then he drags his 6'2", 175-pound body to the batter's box, digs holes for each foot, assumes a closed stance and looks moundward through his sleepy eyes. But when Baines swings, he comes alive. First, he steps high with his front foot—about half a Mel Ott stride. Then he takes a short, surprisingly quick stroke—one reminiscent of Stan Musial's. "He has excellent hand-eye coordination," says Tanana. "He'll pick up the pitch right away, tell what kind it is and how fast it's going and then pop it." Adds Texas manager Doug Rader, "He's always adjusting. Tanana got him to ground out on one breaking ball, threw him another and he tripled."
"I'm a guess hitter," says Baines. "I guess with the catcher because he calls the game. Before I bat, I'll watch how the catcher works a hitter they might pitch the same as me, like [first baseman] Greg Walker. I try not to overswing, and I concentrate harder after the seventh inning."
That's an extraordinarily garrulous statement for Baines, a man of legendary reticence. How shy a guy? "Shy as a wren in a hedgerow," George Moore, the turn-of-the-century Irish writer, would have put it. How reserved? "Harold has the same expression after a homer as after a strikeout," says Bruce Larrimore, a high school chum who once threw him four straight gopher balls in a Pony League game. Though some teammates swear facetiously they once saw Baines in a bar, he says it "must have been for five minutes, and I must have been drinking Perrier water." After being called out at first on a close play one night last week, Baines returned to the dugout while LaRussa and first base coach Dave Nelson argued with umpire Larry McCoy. "He wasn't going to change his mind," said Baines, explaining why he didn't join the debate.
"Sometimes I wish I could throw a bat or helmet, but it would take away from my concentration," he says. Others agree. "He feels if you keep to yourself and watch, you'll learn more," says his wife, Maria, who was the official scorer in Baines's senior year at St. Michaels (Md.) High School and then waited six years to marry him. "He has a lot of Joe DiMaggio's traits," says Chicago G.M. Roland Hemond. "He does his job diligently and smoothly, with little fanfare or flamboyance. His personality shows up in game-winning situations. People who've been jumping up and down all day have nothing left. Harold's ready."
Confidence comes easily to a resident of St. Michaels (pop. 1,301), "the town that beat the British." During the War of 1812 the local "watermen," who still make their living from clamming, oystering and crabbing on Maryland's Eastern Shore, heard the British were sailing up the Miles River. They hung lanterns in the treetops beyond the town, and cannonballs went harmlessly overhead.
The fourth of five children, Baines looks and acts like his father, Linwood, a muscular mason who routinely works 12-hour days. "Harold had a little temper as a kid," says Linwood, who played for two undefeated high school championship basketball teams and was a semipro third baseman. "I told him if he was going into sports, he'd have to keep a level head."
Baines was about 12 when he first attracted the attention of the White Sox. That was when former owner Bill Veeck saw Baines club a 400-foot homer in Little League. Six years later, in 1977, Chicago called Baines a future Musial and Hall of Famer and drafted him first in the country, ahead of Paul Molitor, Bill Gullickson and Terry Kennedy. Steadily improving through three minor league and four major league seasons, Baines set a big league record with 22 game-winning RBIs in 1983 and recently became only the third White Sox player to hit 20 or more homers three straight seasons.
Veeck, who is writing, speaking and following his former team on television, says, "In the next 10 years I think he'll become the premier hitter—and power hitter—in baseball."
Despite a wretched start, Baines is now batting .309 with 24 home runs and 76 RBIs.