Former Chicago Cubs reliever Lee Smith was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday. Here’s why his election was far overdue.
Standing at 6-foot-5 and seemingly just as wide, I immediately thought of how intimidating it must have been to have faced Smith as a hitter.
Even more mindblowing was the thought that Smith almost didn’t make it to the major leagues. After being drafted by the Cubs as a starting pitcher in the second round of the 1975 MLB Draft, Smith was soon told that he would be moved to the bullpen while in Double-A ball. He wasn’t having it.
“I quit. Billy (Williams) had to come to my house and convince me not to give up the game,” he told me as we walked through the lobby of the Sheraton Chicago.
I didn’t know it at the time, but it wasn’t exactly a secret that Billy saved Smith’s career.
In Smith’s defense, it was certainly a different time back then. Pitch counts were unheard of and the bullpen was an afterthought. To be “demoted” to the bullpen wasn’t much different than being demoted to the minor leagues.
Just a few years later, Smith had become one of the most dominant relief pitchers in all of baseball. He would go on to play eight years with the Cubs, reaching the All-Star Game in a Cubs uniform in 1983 and 1987. In 18 seasons, Smith recorded 478 saves and 1,251 strikeouts. Even at 37 years old, Smith went on to finish third in saves in 1995 with 37 behind Jose Mesa (46) and Randy Myers (38).
In 18 seasons, Lee Smith pitched 1289.1 innings. He recorded 1,251 strikeouts.
In 19 seasons, Mariano Rivera pitched 1283.2 innings. He recorded 1,173 strikeouts.
Seriously. In just six innings of more work, Smith recorded 78 more strikeouts than Mariano Rivera. Explain to me why it took 21 years after his retirement for Smith to get elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame?
Smith (478) sits at third on the all-time saves list, behind only Mariano Rivera (652) and Trevor Hoffman (601). A 2016 Fox Sports article lists Smith as the fourth greatest closer of all time, behind Rivera, Dennis Eckersley, and Hoffman.
Smith’s election is sorely overdue. Given the heavy focus on relievers and closers in today’s game, it’s wild to think that the closer with the third most saves in baseball history who has more strikeouts than Mariano Rivera is finally being elected to the Hall of Fame over 20 years after retiring.
In reality, Smith’s election could be a signal of elections to come. There’s no doubt that Smith helped to revolutionize the game by helping to put a strong emphasis on the bullpen and closer role, something that was looked down upon at the beginning of his career. His contributions to the game were finally recognized on Saturday as Smith earned all 16 potential votes for election to the Hall of Fame.
There’s certainly a lot of flaws with the Hall of Fame voting system, but they got it right this time. In just a few short months, Smith will be joining the ranks of the rest of baseball’s greats in Cooperstown. To top it off, he’ll be decked out in a Cubs hat on his brand new, shiny plaque.
I’m sure Smith would tell you it was worth the wait. After all, he’s used to coming into the game in the ninth inning.