By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Ex-Cub Ron Santo finally got into the Hall of Fame this past summer. Ex-Cub Greg Maddux will easily get into the Hall of Fame in the summer of 2014. And Ex-Cub Lee Smith will surely get into the Hall of Fame …
Well, who knows when – or if – the big man will ever be inducted into Cooperstown. But I do know this: the fact that Lee Arthur Smith hasn’t gotten in yet is a shame.
And it’s high time to fix the oversight.
In 1995, legendary Los Angeles Times sports writer Jim Murray tabbed Lee Smith as the active player most likely to be elected to the Hall of Fame, calling him “the best one-inning pitcher the game ever saw,” and “the best at smuggling a game into the clubhouse in history.”
Two years later, Smith retired after 18 dominating seasons and with his name attached to the all-time saves record. But here in 2012, he’s still awaiting his HOF call. Murray, who passed away in ’98, would surely be scratching his head about that if he was alive today.
I am alive and I’m certainly scratching mine.
During this coming month, the Baseball Writers Association of America will ponder who will get their nod in early January for enshrinement come July. Most of the attention over the next month will focus on the writers voting (or not voting) for the likes of steroid-tainted stars Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds, who all are appearing on the ballot for the first time.
But, in my book, the focus really should be placed on the likes of Lee Smith, who’s been closed out of the Hall since becoming eligible in 2002 despite his 478 saves and a career ERA of 3.03.
Way back in 2006, after being snubbed by the Hall for the fourth time, Smith said: “This confuses the hell out of me. But I’ve always been baffled by it … I hear people say, ‘Oh, but this is only your fourth year of eligibility,’ I don’t get that either. My stats aren’t getting any better with time. If anything, give it a few more years and there’ll be four more guys with more saves than me. But I understand that in baseball you’ve got to wait your time.”
It’s now six years later and both Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman, who have more than 600 saves apiece, have indeed passed Smith. One could argue that Rivera’s and Hoffman’s accomplishments have diminished Smith’s greatest HOF asset, his all-time record. But that makes zero sense to me. After all, if only current record holders were consider Hall-worthy, there would be a lot of Hall-worthy guys who should be bumped from Cooperstown.
Smith was the saves leader when he retired. That was his legacy, and it still should be today. Beyond that, of the four relievers who have been inducted into the Hall of Fame lately – Dennis Eckersley, Goose Gossage, Rollie Fingers and Bruce Sutter – all rank behind Smith on the saves list. Sutter, in fact, finished with 300, the same as Jason Isringhausen for No. 22 on the all-time list.
Eckersley and Fingers, of course, both won MVP awards and Sutter won a Cy Young award, while Smith never came closer than second in Cy Young voting (finishing runner-up to Tom Glavine in 1991). But a lack of hardware from one single season should not diminish the record-setting dominance of Smith’s collective career.
This past year, his 10th on the ballot, Smith finished fourth in HOF voting with 50.6 percent of vote, behind Jeff Bagwell (56.0), Jack Morris (66.6) and Barry Larkin (86.4) – and far off the 75 percent total required for induction. Clearly, he has a lot of ground to make up during his five final years on the BBWAA ballot if he’s to make it in. But, then again, it did take 13 years for Sutter to finally get his nod.
So perhaps the great closer will slip into the Hall during the ninth inning of his eligibility. That could be fitting, I suppose. But what would not be is if Smith is shut out of Cooperstown completely.
Here’s to hoping he closes strong, just like he always did.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.