Lee Smith hasn’t yet made it into the Hall of Fame. But if Cooperstown has a “green room,” a stand-by parlor until your formal entrance cue, Large Lee made it through those doors last year, his 10th on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot.
A year ago, Smith finally became a Hall of Famer-elect. Either that, or he became Gil Hodges — the late first-base great who, through the first 75 years of balloting, remains the only one to ever get more than 50 percent of the votes and never reach the 75 percent required for induction.
Smith crossed that promising threshold for the first time last year, at 50.6 percent. Rather than become the next Hodges — who was repeatedly stonewalled in the 50-63.4 percent range between 1971-83 — Smith hopes to become the next Goose Gossage or the next Bruce Sutter, fellow trailblazing closers whose plaques already adorn the Hall of Fame’s walls.
The long wait used to puzzle Smith; to an extent, probably still does. But it has also made him appreciate more the privilege of possibly joining baseball’s Valhalla, having given him time to reflect on the company of peers waiting for him.
“Just to be mentioned for the Hall, alongside guys like Lou Brock, Steve Carlton, Bob Gibson and so many others. … Man, that’s incredible,” Smith said.
In 2003, in his first year of eligibility, the onetime and longtime holder of the career saves record drew 42.3 percent of the votes, and he remained in that respectable zone until cracking the 50-percent ceiling.
So, unless voters choose to dismiss one of the modern game’s trendsetters, Smith’s likeness will eventually find its way into Cooperstown’s Plaque Room.
Since 1964, only five men have held the career saves record longer than for one fleeting year.
Two of them — Hoyt Wilhelm and Rollie Fingers — are already in the Hall of Fame. Two others — Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera — are certain to join them as soon as they become ballot-eligible.
Then there is Smith, who held that record from 1993 until being passed by Hoffman in 2006 — three years after he had first landed on the ballot. During Smith’s fruitless candidacy, the perceived cold shoulder to relief pitchers has warmed up with the elections of Dennis Eckersley (in 2004), Sutter (’06) and Gossage (’08).
And the man who once seemed destined to be the one to throw open Cooperstown’s doors for closers would be more than thrilled to follow his peers across the door sill.
“To see Goose and Rollie and Sutter going in now, that’s going to help us relievers out a whole lot,” Smith has noted.
A candidate must receive 75 percent of the vote from BBWAA members to gain election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Shortstop Barry Larkin (86.4 percent) was the lone 2012 inductee, while pitcher Jack Morris (66.7 in his 13th year of eligibility) and infielder Jeff Bagwell (56) were the only near-misses to score higher than Smith.
Even in the fickle world of Hall of Fame certification, the rejection of Smith, who turns 55 in 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, 14 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. His loss of the all-time mark has 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 Smith alone logged during his 18 seasons.
Both Sutter — elected in his 13th year on the ballot — and Gossage — affirmed in his ninth year — began their candidacies with lower support than had Smith.
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 have accomplished the feat over the past five 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 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 teams.
Yet, until recently, Smith held the career saves record for two of those teams, both 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 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 — most of which ended with him throwing the last pitch. He held another Major League record for most games finished — 802 — until it was surpassed late in the 2009 season by Hoffman, who in ’11 was himself overtaken by Rivera.
Considering that Smith 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.