After having spent 18 seasons in the big leagues, Lee Smith has been waiting almost as long for the phone call to Cooperstown and his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Now in the 15th–and final year of his eligibility on the writer’s ballot, Smith is looking for one more big finish to go with his 478 career saves.
“I have no idea, it’s been sort of a puzzle since my first year on the ballot,” answered Smith if he thought this was finally going to be the year with good news. “A lot of my friends–Jim Rice and a couple of other guys have made it in on their last ballot…so hopefully, it’s going to be a good year for me.”
A player must receive 75% of the vote and Smith has seen his totals drop from 42.3% in his first year of 2003 to 29.9% in 2014 and then up to 34.1% last season. Obviously, his stats haven’t changed so what has been the biggest detriment to his selection?
“The one thing that I’ve heard is that guys have said ‘well, you played for a lot of teams’,” shared Smith. “I didn’t ask to get traded. Thank God somebody wanted me but they said that was a thing and then there was ‘you were never on a World Series team’, well I can’t help that. It takes more than one guy. I would’ve loved to have put that on my stats but I thought the teams I played for, I did a pretty good job for them.”
No, Lee Smith did not pitch in the World Series. But he remains 3rd on baseball’s all-time saves list after holding the record for 13 years. And he did take the mound in seven All-Star Games–including 1987, which helped change his career.
“I was sort of getting one of those ‘okay, he’s a decent closer, he’s pretty good, he’s at the top’ thing and we actually had an extra inning game and I pitched three innings in that game,” recalled Smith. In that outing, he was the winning pitcher and struck out Kirby Puckett twice, Mark McGwire, and Tony Fernandez while giving up only two hits and no runs. “I think that put me over the hump of being one of the best in the game from that point on.”
Some have encouraged Smith to have a louder voice in promoting his case, but that would be unnatural.
“I ain’t one of those guys to pat my own back and do all that tooting my own horn,” explained Smith.
So if on January 18th the phone call does come?
“Man, I’d be speechless–and that ain’t never happened to me before,” laughed Smith. “My hometown to this day still doesn’t have a red light. To be even put in the same sentence with Babe Ruth and all those guys, Hank Aaron and guys like that would be unbelievable. But, the icing on the cake of a career that I thought I did pretty well for myself, but it would be something–I really can’t explain it to you. It would be unbelievable for me.”
photo credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports, Leon Algee-AP