By Dave Wischnowsky-
(CBS) Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas are all entering Cooperstown this weekend as first-ballot Hall of Famers.
Craig Biggio and Mike Piazza might make it next year. Jack Morris’ eligibility has run out. Jeff Bagwell has a decent chance at some day earning induction, while Tim Raines, Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds may all be long shots, for different reasons.
And then there’s Lee Arthur Smith.
The man who finished 11th in Hall of Fame balloting for 2014 – behind all of those aforementioned stars – earned only 29.9 percent of the vote in his 12th year of eligibility, far below the 75 percent threshold required for induction. With so many big names coming onto the ballot in recent years, Smith’s tally has plummeted from the 50.9 percent that he earned as recently as 2012, when he was fourth in voting.
It looks like Cooperstown is closing out one of baseball’s greatest closers. And as Chicago prepares to celebrate the induction of Maddux and Thomas during a great Hall of Fame Weekend, that’s a shame for another Windy City great in Smith, who spent the first eight seasons of his 18-year career intimidating hitters from the mound at Wrigley Field.
Back in 1995, legendary Los Angeles Times sports writer Jim Murray tabbed 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, a 3.03 career ERA and 478 saves, then the all-time record. But as the class of 2014 prepares for its induction on Sunday, Smith is still waiting for his Cooperstown call.
And the clock is ticking for him. Loudly.
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.”
While Smith’s waited, four guys haven’t surpassed his all-time saves mark, but Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman have, finishing their careers with more than 600 saves apiece.
One could argue that their accomplishments have diminished the greatest line on Smith’s Hall of Fame resume, but that makes no sense to me. After all, if only current record holders were considered Hall-worthy, there would be a lot of Hall-worthy guys who should be bumped from Cooperstown.
What matters is that 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 already – Dennis Eckersley, Goose Gossage, Rollie Fingers and Bruce Sutter – each of them rank behind Smith on the saves list. Sutter, in fact, finished with only 300 saves, the same number as Jason Isringhausen for what’s now No. 25 on the all-time list.
Of course, Eckersley and Fingers both won MVP awards and Sutter 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 earned through a single season’s accomplishments shouldn’t diminish the record-setting dominance of Smith’s collective career.
Come 2016, Hoffman becomes eligible for the Hall of Fame. Smith’s eligibility runs out in 2017. I believe Smith should get in before Hoffman starts getting votes of his own, but Smith clearly has an enormous amount of ground to make up if he’s to earn induction.
However, it did take 13 years for Sutter to finally get his nod. So perhaps Smith will find a way to slip into the Hall of Fame during the ninth inning of his eligibility. After all, that would be fitting. Because how many men have closed stronger than Lee Smith?
What would be the real shame is if Cooperstown ends up closing him out completely.