A Very American Coup By Michael – Louis Ingram, Editor-in-Chief...
Raines Jr. awaits return to MLB
He spent a magical week in The Show, watching a Hall of Famer gracefully leave the game and playing alongside his favorite player in the outfield. He had just turned 22 and had speed to spare, with 135 steals over the previous two Minor League seasons.
He had a name — and the bloodlines — that pointed to a long and successful Major League career. Tim Raines Jr. had arrived and got to play in the same outfield as his father.
Was he rushed just a bit to get up to play with Tim Raines Sr., who was nearing the end of his career? Perhaps. Was the whole thing a little contrived, with Sr. being dealt to Baltimore just so he could play with Jr.? That’s a possibility.
Even so, there’s no way the younger Raines thought those first seven games in the Major Leagues would be a part of just 75 in total, none since 2004. Or that his first taste of Triple-A in that 2001 season would become the norm and not the exception, with him spending parts or all of eight years at that level.
Or that after spending the first nine summers of his pro career with Baltimore, he’d play for four organizations in four years. Or that, once again following the 2009 season, he’d be looking for work as a Minor League free agent.
This isn’t a new story. There have been countless players who get a cup of coffee, put up decent numbers in Triple-A, yet never seem to get another shot.
What makes this tale unique is the name involved and the fact that through it all, Raines Jr. has somehow managed to keep his heart from turning to stone and his passion for the game intact.
“To make it while my dad was there, during Cal Ripken’s last week of playing baseball, was one of the most incredible feelings I’ve ever had,” Raines Jr. said. “It’s always on my mind. That’s what keeps me going. That’s where I want to be.
“I know what it takes to get there. That’s been my motivation. Go out and play baseball, not be that bitter guy. I like to enjoy baseball because it’s an awesome job. There are millions of people who would enjoy doing it. Being able to support your family at the same time, it’s not a bad gig.”
Raines Jr. has been at the gig long enough to be reaching some pretty serious plateaus at the Minor League level. He’s totaled 454 career stolen bases, behind only Freddy Guzman on the career active list.
He passed 1,200 hits this season while playing for Triple-A Omaha in the Royals system and he’s closing in on 1,300 games played. It’s not that Raines Jr. isn’t proud of his statistical resume. But it’s kind of like Crash Davis says in “Bull Durham,” setting a Minor League record would be a bit of a dubious honor.
“I don’t really know any of them,” said Raines Jr., now 30 years old.
“I’ve played so long. My ultimate goal each year I go out is to play in the big leagues. I don’t hear much about [the stats]. I feel it’s a great accomplishment, but at the same time, I feel like there’s so much more that could be done.”
The big question is, why hasn’t it? It might sound rhetorical, but Raines Jr. would love an answer. He freely admits he asks that question all the time, especially at the conclusion of each season that puts a little more distance between him and his last time in the Majors.
“That’s been the thing that’s eating me up ever since that 2004 season,” Raines Jr. said. “With me competing and playing well, I thought it’d be possible a team would take a chance on me.”
“I couldn’t figure out why teams wouldn’t give me a shot. I talked to my dad and my friends, it baffles them as well. To this day, my dad doesn’t have an answer. I don’t have an answer. It’s been tough at times.”
His dad makes a few guesses, pointing to some inconsistency combined with bad timing. But in the end, he shakes his head about how his son has become a career Minor Leaguer.
“He’d have a good year and they wouldn’t call him up, then next year he’d be so-so, then be in the wrong spot at the wrong time,” said Raines Sr., who is now the manager of the independent Atlantic League Newark Bears. “I asked him, ‘Did you do anything to anyone on the way up?’ It boggles my mind, too. I thought he’d get more opportunities.”
Putting it all together in 2008
There were other times when Raines Jr. looked like he had figured it out in the Minors. He hit .304 with 51 steals in 2003, a performance that led to 20 games and 46 at-bats with the Orioles. His only real extended time in the big leagues — 48 games and 101 at-bats — came the following season.
He hit .278 and stole 30 bases for the Nationals in 2006, yet a team that gave a lot of playing time to Marlon Byrd and Jose Guillen couldn’t find room for Raines Jr. In 2007, it was on to the Astros. At age 27, he hit .313, showed some more pop and swiped 25 bases.
Evidently, the Astros believed that Jason Lane (.178 average, .606 OPS) and Orlando Palmeiro (.233, .604 OPS), neither with any speed to speak of, were better options.
Then came the 2008 campaign. Without question, it was Raines Jr.’s best as a professional. He showed the ability to hit for average, power and showed his legs were still working fine when he hit .311, slugged .530 and stole 28 bases for Tucson, the Triple-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Still, he was never really considered for a callup.
Clearly, he had the label of “Minor League veteran.”
But Raines Jr. is not the despairing type, so he went to winter ball and put up good numbers in Venezuela. By this point, at age 29, he knew better than to expect anything. But he figured after the year he’d had, at least some teams would inquire about his services.
“I thought for sure there would be plenty of teams that would be interested, would at least give me an invite and a look,” Raines Jr.
said. “There are just some things you can’t explain in baseball.”
“After last year, it was a lot harder for me as the guy who went out and had the season, knowing what you feel you should receive from the game and not getting that. It was rough. I just had my best season at the wrong time.”
Economy plays a role in Triple-A
Raines Jr. didn’t get many calls, not even for non-roster invitations, despite his standout season. While most looked at the economic downturn and its effects on Major League free agency and big league payrolls, it was pretty clear that Raines Jr. got caught in its web as well.
As a veteran with several years of playing at the highest level of the Minor Leagues, the outfielder would command one of the highest Triple-A salaries in that pay structure. This isn’t multi-million-dollar contract stuff, but it clearly was a consideration for teams trying to trim costs.
Changes to the rules haven’t helped, either. It used to be that there was a gap between the start of Minor and Major League free agency. The new collective bargaining agreement changed that, syncing them up.
So now agents have to take care of their bread-winners — the big leaguers — first, then deal with the Minor Leaguers. With the timing, clubs have a clearer picture of what’s going on, so they’re not as apt to move quickly on the Minor Leauge front as they once were.
“More and more, I think we are seeing clubs trying not to overspend on Triple-A salaries, and guys like Tim are having a harder time getting jobs,” explained Royals assistant general manager for scouting and player development J.J. Picollo, who eventually signed Raines Jr. at the end of May this season.
“In effect, what happens is that clubs do not sign many Minor League free agents early. I believe that is why accomplished Minor League free agents have ended up without a job.”
Raines Jr. went to Spring Training with the White Sox, but never got a shot. He then played a few days for his father in Newark and ended up in Taiwan for a while. That didn’t work out, so he returned home and, for a change, his timing was good.
The Royals had an opening for an outfielder in Omaha and Raines Jr. was more than happy to become a Royal. He started slowly, but finished well and is now back in the all-too-familiar baseball job market.
Not using the family name
Bloodlines are important in baseball. It’s not uncommon for a player to be drafted or to be given multiple chances because his father, uncle or brother played the game at a high level. Back in 2001, it would’ve been easy to think that perhaps Raines Jr. was taking advantage of his namesake.
After all, his dad was finishing up a tremendous career that saw him hit .294, steal 808 bases, score 1,571 runs and collect 2,605 hits, all while playing for six Major League teams throughout his career.
Who could blame a young player for using that to gain a foothold in the game? And who would begrudge a son from trading in on his dad’s success to open some doors?
But that’s clearly not how Raines Jr. was raised and it’s obviously not who he’s become. If the aftermath of the 2008 season proved anything, it’s that he was not using his name to pave the way and, somewhat surprisingly, he wasn’t getting any kind of preferential treatment.
“I’ve always told him he has to make his own name,” Raines Sr. said.
“We both have the same name. You have to make your own name to make it.
I feel like he’s done it.”
“Everybody I talk to that knows him says he’s a good guy. Not just on the field, but a great kid. That’s why I don’t understand [why] he hasn’t gotten enough chances or hasn’t been in the big leagues for a few years.”
“That was one of the things I was taught when I was young,” Raines Jr.
said. “He told me, ‘When you make this decision to do this, you’re doing it for you. What I did has nothing to do with you. If you do this, do it because you love it.’”
He clearly still does and he’s still doing it on his own terms. It’s not just members of the family who see that.
“It’s a testament to his character. He doesn’t fall back on [his name],” said fellow outfielder Chris Lubanski, who played with Raines Jr. in Omaha this season.
“Not one time did he ever use that as an excuse or ask why this isn’t working. That speaks volumes. He’s out there on his own; he wants to make a name for himself. You see that with other players, the bloodlines, they get the extra chances. He doesn’t use that as a crutch.”
A new Raines on the way
There are things that give Raines Jr. a little perspective these days.
He and his wife are expecting their first child, a boy, in November.
There’s nothing like impending parenthood to make someone realize that his job, even baseball, isn’t everything.
It’s the first grandchild on both sides of the family, so it’s pretty clear this child, whether he can take a good secondary lead or not, is going to get plenty of attention.
If he does play baseball — and there appears to be a pretty good shot he will in some capacity — then Raines Jr. already has a loose idea of how he wants to handle it. Nothing fancy, just pass down some of the same advice his father gave to him while showing him his own career as a cautionary tale.
“All I’m going to tell him is that when you decide to do something, decide to do it,” Raines Jr. said. “Don’t back out if things start to get hard. Don’t get too high, don’t get too low. You can do almost everything right, and there’s a chance you won’t get a reward for it.
“At one point, if he loves baseball, I’ll do everything I can to help him. At the same time, I want him to understand what he’s getting himself into. It can hurt you and it can make you really happy. At the end of the day, don’t let it run you. There are a lot of things in life that are a lot more important.”
At the very least, Raines Jr. can be sure he’ll lead by example. Given the trajectory of his career, many others would have thrown in the towel by now, walked away and let that bitterness sink in. But Raines Jr. won’t allow it and even with all the setbacks, he still sees the possibilities ahead of him.
“It’s the love for the game, regardless of where you’re playing,” he said. “It’s always something I’ve loved to do. If I continue to play well, I’ll try to open up someone’s eyes and try to get back to the big leagues.
“You see stories all the time of guys getting that shot after 10-12 years, and they stick. I feel I have so much more to give to the game.
I just can’t walk away. I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night at another job if I could still play baseball and decided not to.”