With precedent set, Smith awaits call
Preeminent closer established curve, hoping for Hall nod
He seemed destined to be the one who threw open the Hall of Fame's doors for the influx of baseball's neo-knights, the closers. That did not happen, but now that Bruce Sutter and Goose Gossage have done the honors, Lee Smith would be more than thrilled to follow his peers across the doorsill.If a new trail has indeed been blazed, few belong in those footsteps more than the 6-foot-6, 240-pound jovial giant who held the career saves record for 14 years, until Trevor Hoffman went beyond 478 in September 2006. Smith was relegated to No. 3 in 2008 by Mariano Rivera, who finished that season with 482.
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 after having lost that distinction. Yet there is no denying the encouraging precedent set in the last two elections by Sutter and Gossage who, incidentally, between them had 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 Smith, who earned 42.3 percent of the votes in his first year of eligibility, in 2003. Smith, in an up-and-down mode the past few years, polled 235 votes for 43.3 percent in the last election. A candidate must get 75 percent of the vote to gain election, with former Red Sox slugger Jim Rice (72.2 percent), former Expos and Cubs outfielder Andre Dawson (65.9 percent) and former Twins ace Bert Blyleven (61.9 percent) standing as the top three returning vote-getters. Rickey Henderson, whose career spanned 25 years and nine teams, headlines the newcomers to the 2009 Hall of Fame ballot. Henderson, who has never announced his retirement, last played for the Dodgers in 2003. The 1990 American League MVP is the all-time leader in runs scored (2,295) and stolen bases (1,406) and is second in walks (2,190). Live coverage of the Hall of Fame's announcement will take place on MLB.com on Monday, Jan. 12. 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 1984, six other big league closers notched 30-plus saves; in a typical season in this era, that number triples (an average of 17 the last 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-spoken Louisiana native who went 12 seasons between his first 30-save season and his last (1995) -- noteworthy in a Rivera context, since the Yankees' ice-blooded closer, perceived as durable, has been in the Majors for only two years longer than that. 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, too. 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 holds another Major League record for most games finished -- 802, still 70 more than Hoffman's career total. Considering that he either saved or won more than half of them (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.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.