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Don't knock The Rock
Ron Fimrite
June 25, 1984
His drug problem behind him, Montreal centerfielder Tim (Rock) Raines is now one of baseball's best all-around players
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June 25, 1984

Don't Knock The Rock

His drug problem behind him, Montreal centerfielder Tim (Rock) Raines is now one of baseball's best all-around players

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La S�ance de Photographie was nothing more than just another Picture Day at the ball park, but in the extraordinary setting of Montreal's Olympic Stadium, a monument to unfulfilled ambition that has as its distinguishing architectural features an incomplete dome and a giant crane, even the most humdrum event is transformed into something strange and unworldly. Picture Day, when camera-packing fans pile out of the stands to snap local heroes on the ball field, is pretty strange anyway. This is when the players become photographers' models, and most of the Expos looked as comfortable in that role as schoolboys on the principal's carpet.

In fact, only one of the ballplayer-models seemed genuinely to be enjoying himself—Tim Raines, the spunky outfielder. Raines clowned unashamedly through the entire 45-minute session, pretending to fall off his platform, hiding behind other players, putting his cap on backward, grappling with the Expos' resident creature, Youppi, who resembles a large orange platypus, and generally treating his photographers to a variety of imaginative poses. The fans responded in kind, cheering him and howling with laughter at his relentless japery. He made the whole bizarre spectacle seem fun.

Raines can do that to a ball game, too. He plays with such unbridled exuberance that he can make a dull game exciting, particularly when he is dancing off first base preparing to plunder second. He has a keen sense of showmanship. "Stealing bases," he says, "can be as exciting as hitting home runs. The fans come out to the park to see people like Rickey Henderson, Willie Wilson and me." In only his fourth season, Raines has become one of the game's most colorful players, as well as one of its best. "He's such a pleasant, effervescent, lovely guy," says Expos president John McHale. "And he can play like hell."

That he can. Raines is the first player since the White Sox' Luis Aparicio in 1956, '57 and '58 to lead his league in stolen bases in each of his first three seasons. As a rookie in the strike-shortened 1981 season, Raines stole an astonishing 71 bases in 88 games. Last year he stole 90, and this year he has yet to be caught in 22 attempts and has a string of 31 successful steals dating to last Sept. 22. On the basis of a minimum of 300 attempts, Raines now has the top career percentage for steals, .867, in baseball history.

"I try to get as much of a lead as I can without having to dive back to the base," says Raines. "For me, that's one foot on the turf and one on the dirt. I rely on jumps and quickness. I'm at top speed after one step. You have to have acceleration to be a base stealer. If you have all of that, it takes a perfect throw."

But base running is just one aspect of a brilliant overall game. Raines, a switch hitter, batted .298 last year, scored a league-leading 133 runs and hit 32 doubles, eight triples and 11 homers, including two grand slams. Batting leadoff, he drove in 71 runs to become only the fifth player in history, and the first since Ty Cobb in 1915, to steal more than 70 bases and drive in more than 70 runs in a year.

On defense Raines led all National League outfielders in '83 with 21 assists, and he tied a team record by making only four errors. He has been shifted from left to centerfield this year to take greater advantage of his sprinter's speed and to give former centerfielder Dawson's aching knees some relief in right. Expos coach Felipe Alou, who played alongside Willie Mays with the Giants and therefore knows a little about the position, says of Raines, "I think he'll wind up as the best centerfielder in the game. He may not have Mays's or Dawson's arm, but he has great range, and with his speed he can play shallow. He gets a good jump on the ball, and he's not bothered by walls. He has a great sense of where he is on the field. Mays had that. You'd think Willie would kill himself running into a wall, but he never did." Manager Bill Virdon, himself a premier centerfielder in the '50s and '60s, says Raines has "the three ingredients you need to be a centerfielder—judgment, speed and good hands. And he covers so much ground, he was wasted in leftfield."

Teammate Pete Rose is unequivocal in assessing Raines: "Right now he's the best player in the National League. Mike Schmidt is a tremendous player and so are Dale Murphy and Andre Dawson, but Rock [ Raines's nickname, more about that later] can beat you in more ways than any other player in the league. He can beat you with his glove, his speed and his hitting from either side of the plate. And he has the perfect disposition for a great player—he has fun. He's just a happy guy. You can't tell if he has gone oh for four or four for four. He's the same at eight in the morning as he is at eight at night. I've never seen him in a bad mood. And as far as running the bases, I don't see how they ever throw him out. But he doesn't just do it on speed alone. He knows the pitchers, so he gets a great jump."

"If anyone ever had million-dollar legs," says the veteran infielder Chris Speier, "Timmy's got 'em."

Raines drove in so many runs leading off last season and hit so well with runners in scoring position—a team-leading .368—that Virdon dropped him from leadoff to third in the batting order this season, a controversial move that some observers felt would both change and hurt Raines's game. Well, they were wrong and they were right. At the end of last week Raines ranked among the league's top 10 players in on-base percentage (.396), hits (73), runs (41), RBIs (37), walks (37) and, of course, steals, but his average was down to .300 from a high of .344 on May 14. Because of that dip, Virdon returned him to the No. 1 position June 11. "We moved him because he was struggling and we were struggling," says Virdon. "We thought we'd give him back a role he was more familiar with, but I still think he can be a good number three hitter. He doesn't go for bad pitches and that's important in batting third. We will try it again."

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