Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Baseball Hall of (Kinda-Sorta) Fame

I'm kind of pissed. The Frambozen is gone. The end-of-the-year glow provided by the twin holidays of Christmas and New Year's Eve is also gone, replaced by the bitter, sub-zero, salt-encrusted ugliness of January.

If that weren't bad enough, the Baseball Writers' Association of America has again seen fit to dismiss the career of Lee Smith, a player as uncommon as his name is common.

Lee Smith was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the mid-seventies, which might be the only smart thing they did that decade.

After several years in the minors, Smith was called up to the major leagues in late 1980, the first of eight seasons he would spend in blue pinstripes. During that time, he reliably served as the Cubs' closer on those rare occasions they held a late-game lead in need of protection.

Built like a tight end, Smith would take the mound with Jheri curls glistening in the mid-summer humidity. He would glower at a succession of hitters from beneath a cap pulled low until they had, more often than not, surrendered to futility.

Sadly, in December of 1987 the Cubs saw fit to trade Smith to the Boston Red Sox for future Hall of Famers Al Nipper and Calvin Schiraldi. (For those of you not knowledgeable about baseball, I'm being a tad sarcastic. Really, seriously and totally sarcastic.) 

This despite the fact that between 1982 and 1988, Smith never ranked lower than fourth in saves, and finished first or second four times. Is it lazy thinking or just too easy to suggest the Cubs felt there was nothing left to, um, save? 

At any rate, Smith continued his late-game heroics in Boston for two years before being traded early in the 1990 season to the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for Tom Brunansky.

In St. Louis, playing for surprisingly mediocre Cardinal teams, Smith elevated his profile and recorded three successive forty-save seasons with just a single ERA over 3.20. He was rewarded with three consecutive all-star berths.

Following a late-season trade to the Yankees in 1993 and by then in his mid-thirties, Smith split time between four teams, enjoying an all-star season each with the Baltimore Orioles (1994) and California Angels (1995) before retiring in the summer of 1997 as a Montreal Expo.

It is significant that in the fourteen seasons between 1981 and 1996, Smith never finished lower than ninth in saves and led the league four times. Only once in that span did his ERA climb above 3.65, or his strike-outs-per-nine-innings average fall below seven.

He assumed the all-time lead in saves in 1993, and held it through 2006. He set a single-season record for saves in a season with 47 in 1991, and was good enough, long enough to be named an all-star with four different franchises.

And yet Lee Smith remains unelected to the Hall of Fame.

Smith set about his career with the same quiet intensity Henry Aaron did his. He never made headlines by feuding with teammates, managers or GMs. Armed with a fastball that burned like the heat in his native Louisiana, he merely excelled.

But low-key personalities without multiple World Series appearances for big market glamor teams apparently aren't sexy enough to warrant BBWAA attention. After being named on 50.6 percent of the ballots in 2012, Smith's support has shrank alarmingly.

In what must rank as one of the larger insults of his life, Barry 'Asterisk' Bonds and Roger Clemens have been named on more ballots than Smith in each of the last two years.

Really, BBWAA? Really?

To my knowledge, Lee Smith has never killed anyone. Never patronized a puppy mill nor introduced legislation that would consign millions to economic deprivation while enriching a tiny percentage of the population.

Then why should he be made to suffer the indignity of trailing self-important gas bags like Bonds and Clemens in the BBWAA's annual Hall of Fame vote?

Let me try this again: if being very good for a very long time is the criteria for entrance to the Hall of Fame, Smith belongs.

If being the first relief pitcher to amass four-hundred saves, or remaining solidly entrenched in third place on the all-time saves list nearly twenty-years after retirement means anything, Smith belongs.

If a career ERA of 3.03 or averaging nearly a strike-out per inning over an eighteen-year career in the pressure cooker of relief pitching is just a wee bit out of the ordinary, Smith belongs.

The stretch of thirteen consecutive seasons with at least twenty saves remains the second-longest ever assembled by a relief pitcher. The six-straight seasons with at least thirty saves remains third-longest, and the three successive seasons attaining at least forty saves is second.

Does it need to be said again? Smith belongs.

Lee Smith was a rock. Others might have posted more glittering statistics over the course of a season, perhaps even picked-up a Cy Young award. But Lee Smith was better longer than just about anyone not named Mariano Rivera.

At 107 years old, the Baseball Writers' Association of America clearly should know better: Smith belongs.

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