COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- If there's any chance of electing big-time relievers Bruce Sutter, Lee Smith and Goose Gossage into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, it must be next year. Twenty-one players will be eligible for the first time and there's not a slam dunk among them. Orel Hershiser? Maybe. Will Clark? Not quite. Tim Belcher, Gregg Jefferies, Doc Gooden, Gary Gaetti, Ozzie Guillen, Roberto Kelly, Mickey Morandini, Luis Polonia, Mike Stanley, Mark Whiten? Oy. This group won't get a combined two dozen votes and they are the best of the bunch. For many of them it will be one year on the ballot and out. That's why, for once, despite an obvious bias against closers among members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, the previously shunned trio has some hope.
"For me, the closers are kind of getting backed up," said Ryne Sandberg at a press conference this past weekend when he was inducted into the Hall along with Wade Boggs. "The closer is very important on a team. If you have a winning team, you have a good closer." BBWAA members with voting rights -- those with 10 consecutive years of baseball writing experience for a newspaper or wire service -- must give this one a lot of thought. First off, Sutter has only three years of eligibility left of his 15 on the writer's ballot. And if these guys don't get in as part of the Class of 2006, it may never happen. In 2007, there's the mega ballot: Tony Gwynn, Mark McGwire, Cal Ripken Jr. and Paul O'Neill -- all potential first-time electees among a group of 27 new names. In 2008, Tim Raines gets a shot at it. In 2009, Rickey Henderson is a dead lock. That's why the trio of closers, plus Bert Blyleven, Andre Dawson and Jim Rice, all must be given serious consideration when the ballot goes out to more than 500 voters in December. Sutter, probably the most plausible of the bunch, has gained in popularity over recent years and missed the cut by just 33 votes when the electees were announced during the first week of January. A former player needs to appear on at least 75 percent of the ballots to be elected. "I played with Lee Smith and played against him," Boggs said. "Sutter, Smith and Gossage. Those are three dominant pitchers in their area that really revolutionized the game and took it to a different level. When you do that, you have to get some consideration." The arguments continue to rage about what rules a voter must use to define the role of a closer, which has changed dramatically during the past 30 years. I'm one of those eligible voters, having taken part in the last 14 elections. The criteria are no more spelled out now than they were back then. Smith is the all-time leader by far with 478 saves. Gossage has 310 saves and Sutter has 300. The fact is, it's tough to vote for Sutter or Gossage until Smith is in. My brethren obviously don't agree. In January, Smith earned 200 votes and was seventh overall, appearing on only 38.8 percent of the ballots. Sutter finished third and Gossage fifth with 55.2 percent, 95 votes below the magical line. Why do Gossage and Sutter poll so much higher than Smith? Sutter perfected the split-finger fastball and dominated the National League for 10 seasons, pitching for the Cubs, Cardinals and Braves before his elbow shredded to pieces. Bad luck. No dice. Gossage swung from his early days as a starter into the bullpen, where he had 11 dominant years as a closer for the White Sox, Yankees and Padres, but never had more than 33 saves in a single season. He says he shouldn't be penalized for pitching his last seven years as a setup/mopup guy and recording only 32 saves during that period, just three of them in his last four seasons. Gossage and Sutter didn't throw many single-inning saves. Gossage, for example, was brought in by the Yankees in the seventh inning of the famous 1978 playoff game against the Red Sox at Fenway Park and had to work out of serious jams in seventh, eighth and ninth innings for the Yanks to win by one run. There's something to be said for that. Sutter, then with St. Louis, was so dominant that when Sandberg hit homers off him to tie the score at Wrigley Field both in the ninth and 10th innings on June 23, 1984, the 12-11 Cubs victory came to be known as the "Ryne Sandberg Game." "Nobody would talk about my game against him if he wasn't the best reliever for a long period of time; otherwise there would have been no story," Sandberg said. "But two home runs off of Bruce Sutter? Everybody talks about it because he was unhittable. Goose Gossage, Lee Smith, those are three guys right there that I think deserve to be in the Hall of Fame. I'd take any one of them on my team and would probably win with any of them." It's a lot to digest between now and December. With no time to waste, the fate of the three relievers certainly rests in our hands.
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.