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Storied closer Smith on HOF ballot for 10th time

Former career saves leader's vote totals have been at a standstill
Lee Smith is a candidate on the National Baseball Hall of Fame ballot for the 10th year. The Class of 2012 will be announced on Jan. 9. You can watch the announcement live at 2 p.m. ET on an MLB Network simulcast on

With every passing fruitless year on the ballot, Lee Smith's puzzlement over his exclusion from the Hall of Fame grows. Through nine years of deserving yet unrewarded candidacy, Smith's bewilderment has continued to rise -- unlike his vote totals.

In 2003, in his first year of eligibility, the one-time and long-time holder of the career saves record drew 42.3 percent of the votes, a respectable total. In 2010, he scored 45.3 percent, putting his Cooperstown-worthy respect at a standstill.

A few months after that most recent result, Smith had to once again confess, "This confuses the heck out of me."

But he still feels that his time must be coming. Maybe not until his back is even closer to the 15-year-eligibility wall, but it is becoming more apparent that Large Lee's large puzzlement will eventually end.

His likeness will eventually find its way onto that wall in the Hall of Fame's plaque room, unless voters choose to dismiss one of the modern game's trendsetters. Since 1964, only five different men have held the career saves record longer than for one fleeting year.

Two of them -- Hoyt Wilhelm and Rollie Fingers -- are already in the Hall of Fame. Two others -- Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera -- are certain to join them as soon as they become ballot-eligible.

Then there is Smith, who held that record from 1993 until being passed by Hoffman in 2006 -- three years after he had first landed on the ballot. During Smith's fruitless candidacy, the perceived cold shoulder to relief pitchers has warmed up with the elections of Dennis Eckersley (in 2004), Bruce Sutter ('06) and Goose Gossage ('08).

And the man who once seemed destined to be the one to throw open Cooperstown's doors for closers would be more than thrilled to follow his peers across the door sill.

"To see Goose and Rollie and Sutter going in now, that's going to help us relievers out a whole lot," Smith noted this summer, as he wondered how much immediate help he would get after still falling nearly 30 percent -- which translated to 182 votes -- short of election.

A candidate must receive 75 percent of the vote from Baseball Writers' Association of America members to gain election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Second baseman Roberto Alomar (90 percent) and pitcher Bert Blyleven (79.7 percent) earned their ticket to Cooperstown on the 2011 ballot. Former Reds shortstop Barry Larkin (62.1 percent) and starting pitcher Jack Morris (53.5 percent) are the top returning vote-getters from last year's ballot. Results of the 2012 election will be announced on Monday, Jan. 9.

Even in the fickle world of Hall of Fame certification, the rejection of Smith, who turns 54 in the first week of December, has been interesting. He was so dominant for so long that, in 1995, he was singled out by the respected columnist Jim Murray as the active player most likely to make it to Cooperstown.

As it turned out, 13 others active at that time have beaten Smith through baseball's pearly gates.

If a new trail has indeed been blazed, few belong in the footsteps of Sutter and Gossage more than the 6-foot-6, 240-pound jovial giant whose 478 saves survived as the career record until September 2006. His loss of the all-time mark has been viewed as the leading plank of Smith's heretofore unsuccessful Hall campaigns.

So it would be ironic for him to gain entry without that distinction. Yet, there is no denying the encouraging precedent set in the recent elections of Sutter and Gossage who, incidentally, between them combined for only 132 more saves than did Smith during his 18 seasons.

Both Sutter -- elected in his 13th year on the Baseball Writers' Association of America Hall of Fame ballot -- and Gossage -- affirmed in his ninth year -- began their candidacies with lower support than had Smith.

Smith ranks third among the top returning vote-getters, following Larkin and Morris on that short list.

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 of a deal as it was in 1984, when Smith broke that barrier for the first of 10 times. In '84, six other big league closers notched 30-plus saves; in a typical season in the current era, that number triples (an average of 18 have accomplished the feat over the past four seasons).

"They claim it's an easy job," Smith once 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-speaking Louisiana native, who went 12 seasons between his first 30-save season and his last (1995).

That extended success is also part of Smith's handicap. He isn't recalled as an impact reliever. Thus, contemporaries Sutter and Gossage, whose heydays were more concentrated, were 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, both 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 as well.

For someone who supposedly lacked impact, Smith certainly had his dominant years. During one six-year stretch (1985-90), he averaged more than one strikeout per inning each season, with 580 total punchouts in 509 frames 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 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 -- most of which ended with him throwing the last pitch. He held another Major League record for most games finished -- 802 -- until Hoffman surpassed that mark late in the 2009 season.

Considering that he either saved or won more than half of the games in which he appeared (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 and Gossage, so one of these years Lee could be living large, too.

Tom Singer is a national reporter for Follow @Tom_Singer on Twitter.

Lee Smith