Smith hopes to follow fellow relievers into Hall

By Tom Singer
Updated: December 25, 2010

NEW YORK — Lee Smith’s time is coming.

Maybe not this year, maybe not until his back is even closer to the 15-year-eligibility wall. But it is becoming more apparent that Large Lee’s large puzzlement will eventually end.

“This confuses the heck out of me,” Lee had said in reacting to his 47.3 percent support on the 2009 Hall of Fame ballot, his seventh. “But I’ve always been baffled by it.”

He has not been alone. Smith had held Major League Baseball’s career saves record for 11 years when he first landed on the ballot in 2003, and kept it through two more fruitless elections, until he was passed by Trevor Hoffman.

During Lee’s candidacy, the perceived cold shoulder to relief pitchers has warmed up with the elections of Dennis Eckersley (in 2004), Bruce Sutter (’06) and Goose Gossage (’08).

So, for Smith, will eight be enough? Unlikely — it would require a quantum leap from last year’s percentage to the 75 percent of the vote required for election.

But the man who once seemed destined to be the one who threw open Cooperstown’s doors for closers would be more than thrilled to follow his peers across the doorsill.

Even in the fickle world of Hall of Fame certification, the rejection of Smith, who turns 53 the first week of December, has been interesting.

He was so dominant for so long that, in 1995, he was singled out by the respected columnist Jim Murray as the active player most likely to make it to Cooperstown.

As it turned out, 11 others active at that time have beaten Smith through baseball’s pearly gates.

If a new trail has indeed been blazed, few belong in the footsteps of Sutter and Gossage more than the 6-foot-6, 240-pound jovial giant whose 478 saves survived as the career record until September 2006. Smith still ranks No. 3, having since also been passed by Mariano Rivera.

That saves record had been viewed as the leading plank of Smith’s heretofore unsuccessful Hall campaigns, so it would be ironic for him to gain entry without that distinction.

Yet, there is no denying the encouraging precedent set in the recent elections of Sutter and Gossage who, incidentally, between them combined for only 132 more saves than did Smith during his 18 seasons.

Both Sutter — elected in his 13th year on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America Hall of Fame ballot — and Gossage — affirmed in his ninth year — began their candidacies with lower support than had Smith, who earned 42.3 percent of the votes in his first year of eligibility. Smith, in an up-and-down mode the past few years, polled 258 votes in the latest election.

Smith ranks fifth among the top returning vote-getters, a list headed by near-misses Bert Blyleven (74.2 percent) and Roberto Alomar (73.7), followed by Jack Morris (52.3) and Barry Larkin (51.6).

Smith and other closers have been dealt a unique hand by the modern proliferation of their specialty. While perspective tends to raise appreciation for past players’ performances, in the case of closers, each season appears to dilute their accomplishments.

Putting up 30 saves just isn’t as big of a deal as it was in 1984, when Smith broke that barrier for the first of 10 times. In ’84, six other big league closers notched 30-plus saves; in a typical season in the current era, that number triples (an average of 17 the past four seasons).

“They claim it’s an easy job,” Smith once remarked, “talking about how guys now are only pitching one inning. I wish you could get all the guys that vote one opportunity to pitch the ninth inning and let ’em see how tough a job it was.”

And few have done that job as consistently as did the hard-looking, soft-speaking Louisiana native who went 12 seasons between his first 30-save season and his last (1995).

That extended success is also part of Smith’s handicap. He isn’t recalled as an impact reliever. Thus, contemporaries Sutter and Gossage, whose heydays were more concentrated, were widely regarded as more deserving of enshrinement.

Smith’s have-hammer-will-travel career keeps him from being identified with any particular team, creating another image problem. He logged saves for eight different teams.

Yet, until recently, he held the career saves record for two of those teams, among the most storied franchises in the game. He still holds the Cubs’ record of 180, and also had the Cardinals’ mark until Jason Isringhausen notched his 161st save for St. Louis on June 13, 2006.

This is noteworthy also because those were Sutter’s primary teams as well.

For someone who supposedly lacked impact, Smith certainly had his dominant years. During one six-year stretch (1985-90), he averaged more than one strikeout per inning each season, with 580 total punchouts in 509 frames during that span. Gossage, reputed to be the fire-breathing flamethrower of his era, did that in only four of his 23 seasons.

Smith supporters love to point out that when he notched his first save, in 1981, the career record was 272, a number he would surpass by more than 200. And that old lifetime mark was held by Rollie Fingers, who was recognized for it by being inducted into the Hall of Fame on his second time on the ballot (after a near-miss as a rookie candidate).

But Smith presented a compelling argument that lasted 18 seasons, during which he appeared in 1,022 games, which usually ended with him throwing the last pitch, good or bad. He held another Major League record for most games finished — 802 — until Hoffman surpassed that late in the 2009 season.

Considering that he either saved or won more than half of the games in which he appeared (549, to be exact), the good comfortably outweighed the bad. Does he have one more good finish in him?

“You always wonder if you don’t make it in the first five or six years,” Smith said. “Hopefully, people remember you and you don’t fall out of favor.”

That hope was realized by Sutter and Gossage, so one of these years, Lee could be living large, too.