SPORTS

Like a thief in the night

No one can stop Expos rookie Tim Raines from stealing bases

Hal Quinn June 8 1981
SPORTS

Like a thief in the night

No one can stop Expos rookie Tim Raines from stealing bases

Hal Quinn June 8 1981

Like a thief in the night

SPORTS

No one can stop Expos rookie Tim Raines from stealing bases

Hal Quinn

The stolen base has been a part of the grand old game as long as peanuts and Cracker Jack, but it was Ty Cobb, the Georgia Peach, who perfected thievery. As famous for his hitting as his habit of sliding into bases with his cleats flashing, Cobb stole 96 bases in the 1915 season. It wasn’t until 1962 that Maury Wills broke Cobb’s record, becoming the first player to steal more than 100 bases, and it was back in 1974 that Lou Brock set the current standard of 118. But now, unlike the eras of Cobb, Wills and Brock when the odd individual upset leagues, teams have whole groups of players swiping bases (the Montreal Expos have six), and in numbers that display no reverence for their legendary predecessors. Last season 1,386 more bases were stolen than 10 years earlier. The tandem of Expos Ron LeFlore (97) and Rodney Scott (63) sneaked away with a major league record 160.

It was LeFlore’s exploits that caused many to wonder why the Expos so meekly allowed him to escape this season to the Chicago White Sox. The team’s lack of concern was quietly expressed by manager Dick Williams at the Expos spring training camp: “I think we might have someone who can replace LeFlore.” There were few doubts in Williams’ mind for he was thinking of rookie Tim Raines, and, since the first few games of the season, there have been no doubts elsewhere. Joe Morgan, a second baseman now with the San Francisco Giants, knows base stealing (633 in his career) from both sides, arresting and escaping. Of his encounters with the 21-year-old Raines, Morgan says: “At second base you see the ball and the runner coming, and you know when you’ve got the guy. I knew we had Raines ... he was safe. Over the last 15 feet, he explodes. I think he’s as good now as Lou Brock was in his prime.”

Indeed the five-foot, eight-inch, 165pound Raines is something else again. The Expos first base coach Steve Boros puts a stopwatch on opponents. He calculates that a good pitcher and good catcher require 3.5 seconds to complete the pitch and throw to second. Boros also calculates that from his leadoff stance at the edge of the artificial turf, Raines requires 3.3 seconds to arrive safely. Theoretically, Raines shouldn’t be thrown out at second base. And as of last week, he hadn’t been. In his first 40 games, Raines stole 40 bases, a pace that was a full 16 games ahead of Brock’s record pace and in another league from the rookie record of 56. He had stolen second base 33 times in 33 attempts (six times when the catcher called for a pitchout to try to stop him), third base six times and home once. Only Los Angeles catcher Mike Scioscia had managed to throw him out (Raines has been picked off three times) and that was at third base. His performance and remarkable speed (he has been clocked running the 100 metres from home around to third in 10.9 seconds) is perhaps best summed up by Los Angeles advance scout Joe Metro who reported back: “If you have a left-handed pitcher with a great move to first, and throws a high fastball to a catcher with a great arm, you may have a chance.”

All the hype, testimonials and attention haven’t bothered the muscular Floridian, trimmed down from his minor-league days when his girth earned him his nickname, “Rock.” “I’ve been playing baseball since I was seven years old,” he said last week, “and I’ve always stolen bases. My start isn’t surprising. I knew I could hit major-league pitching [his batting average last week was .329, .324 left-handed, .341 right-handed], and, if I’m on base, I can steal bases.” He has been doing it so well that Expos fans have all but forgotten Ron LeFlore. “He is a better left fielder than LeFlore [a position Raines has not played before, being primarily a second baseman] and has a better arm,” says manager Williams. “LeFlore stole 97 with a .256 average, and I have to think that Tim will hit for a higher average. He could steal well over 100 bases.”

Williams points out a difference between LeFlore and the shy, almost always smiling Raines: “He’s totally unselfish. When LeFlore stole second and the ball roller1 into centre field, he’d be standing th> re dusting himself off, thinking about stealing third. Raines, he’s up and on his way to third.” His unselfishness carries over to deflecting attention from himself: “Hawk [centre fielder André Dawson] is the best at his position in baseball, and he’s always helping me with my fielding. And the best second hitter in baseball [Rodney ( Cool Breeze IScott] is behind me sacrificing himself and allowing me to steal. And they’re so many guys on this team that can steal and they tip me to pitchers’ moves to first.”

Raines has now seen all the teams in the Expos’ division and is writing his own “book” on pitchers. But as yet he has difficulty recalling one that has troubled him: “Well, there was one relief pitcher in San Francisco, he was a little tough. But I can’t remember his name.” Already, and probably for years to come, the opposite is not true.