I met Lee Smith a few years ago in Mesa, Arizona when I was at Spring Training. He was signing baseballs for charity, and after briefly standing in line he autographed a baseball for me and talked with me for a few minutes. He might have been the nicest pro athlete I have ever met. His positive attitude was infectious, and I’ve been an admirer ever since.
That’s why I was happy to see that Smith gained election to the Hall of Fame by the Today’s Game Era Committee at MLB’s Winter Meetings. Smith was a unanimous selection, while former White Sox slugger Harold Baines also gained election. Smith was a seven-time All-Star and finished in the top five in Cy Young Award voting three times. Though I’m too young to remember watching him pitch much except at the tail end of his career, I still appreciate his impact on the game and on Cubs history.
I’ve always been on the fence about whether Smith did enough during his career to warrant induction. I’ve always thought that relief pitchers should only be inducted in rare situations; for example, Mariano Rivera is a no-doubter to me, but I was against Trevor Hoffman’s induction because I didn’t think his impact on the game was big enough.
We know that the role of relief pitching has changed a lot over the past generation, and perhaps Smith’s career personifies that transition. Smith pitched for the Cubs in the early and mid 1980s – including being an often overlooked member of that famous 1984 team – when the role of the closer was different than it is now. While pitching for the Cubs in 1983, Smith led the league in saves with 29; these days there are often several pitchers that reach that mark each year.
Relief pitchers, unlike now, would often pitch more than one inning back then. In 1983, Smith pitched 103 relief innings while racking up those 29 saves, while in 1984 he accumulated 33 saves pitching in 101 innings. (For context, Edwin Diaz, the 2018 MLB saves leader, earned 57 saves in 73.1 innings.) By the time Smith started pitching for the Cardinals in the early 1990s, the role of the relief pitcher was already changing. Between 1991 and 1992, for example, Smith earned 90 saves while pitching a total of 148 innings.
There’s no question that Smith is one of the most accomplished closers of all time; when he retired in 1997, his 478 career saves were a record. But was his impact on the game big enough to warrant induction? I’m still not sure. Yet I can still be happy for a former Cub and a good guy getting in.
When Smith signed my baseball, he wrote “478 saves” next to his name. That baseball is on display in my man cave in the basement of my house, next to a baseball that I got signed by Fergie Jenkins that same year. Jenkins wrote HOF next to his name, and while it might not read it on the one baseball I have, I can now say that I have autographs from two Hall of Fame pitchers side-by-side in my home.
Brian Johnston is the author of the book The Art of Being a Baseball Fan, his story of following the 2015 Chicago Cubs, available on Amazon. He lives in St. Joseph, Michigan with his wife and two children.