Smith hopes to follow Sutter's lead
Intimidating reliever is second on all-time saves list
Bruce Sutter slammed a lot of doors during his Hall of Fame pitching career. For a change, with his 2006 election, he opened a wide one -- through which deserving closers are expected to follow him into the Cooperstown shrine.
That was supposed to have been a job for Lee Arthur Smith, who instead has joined the tangle of relievers camped on the doorstep. They include Rich Gossage, who in last year's vote fell 3.8 percent shy of election. Also among the first to travel the trail blazed by Sutter figures to be 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.
That saves record had been viewed as the leading plank of Smith's 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 by Sutter -- who, incidentally, logged 178 fewer saves during his 13-year career than did Large Lee in his 18 seasons.
Sutter, elected in his 13th year on the BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot, began his candidacy with even lower support than Smith. In fact, not until his eighth ballot did Sutter reach the 45-percent vote accorded Smith in 2006, on his fourth try. Last year, his share slipped to 39.8 percent.
A candidate must get 75 percent of the vote to gain election, and results of the 2008 BBWAA Hall of Fame election will be announced on Jan. 8. The induction ceremony will take place on July 27 in Cooperstown.
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 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 (to 18, in each of the last three seasons).
"They claim it's an easy job," Smith 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 Mariano Rivera context, since the Yankees' ice-blooded closer, perceived as durable, hasn't even been in the Majors as long.
That extended success is also part of Smith's handicap. He isn't recalled as an impact reliever. Thus, contemporaries Sutter and even Gossage, whose heydays were more concentrated, have been 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 a strikeout an inning each season, with 580 total punchouts in 509 innings 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 seventy 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, 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.