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Looking for relief in Smith's Hall bid

Looking for relief in Smith's bid

When Lee Arthur Smith first landed on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2003, he was supposed to be the one to finally break down the door to Cooperstown for firemen. Instead, his 6-foot-6, 240-pound frame has joined the tangle of relievers stuck outside.

Smith had all the requirements to blaze trails. He still does, maintaining his rank as the all-time record-holder in saves with 478.

But that record may not last long. Trevor Hoffman is 43 saves from taking it away from him, and along with it the main plank of his Hall platform.

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And there you have one reason Hall of Fame voters keeps stiff-arming relievers: The passage of time can increase appreciation for past players' performances, but, in the case of closers, each season appears to dilute their accomplishments.

Putting up 30 saves just isn't as big a deal as it was in 1984, when Smith broke that barrier for the first of 10 times. In 1984, six other big-league closers saved 30-plus; in 2005, there were 18.

But few, even now, are as consistent at this specialty as was the hard-looking, soft-spoken Cajun from Shreveport, La. Smith went 12 seasons between his first 30-save season and his last (1995) -- noteworthy in a Mariano Rivera context, since the Yankees' ice-blooded closer, perceived as durable, hasn't even been in the Majors as long.

That extended success is also part of Smith's handicap. He isn't recalled as an impact reliever. Thus, contemporaries Bruce Sutter and Goose Gossage, whose heydays were more concentrated, are 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 he holds the career saves record for two of those teams, among the most storied franchises in the game -- the Cubs (180) and Cardinals (160). This is noteworthy also because those were Sutter's primary teams, too.

For someone who supposedly lacked impact, Smith certainly had his dominant years. During one six-year stretch (1985-1990), he averaged more than a strikeout an inning each season, with 580 total punchouts in 509 innings during that span. Gossage, reputed to be the fire-breathing flame-thrower of his era, did that only in 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 Rollie 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).

  Lee Smith's resume
Teams: Cubs, Red Sox, Cardinals, Yankees, Orioles, Angels, Reds, Expos
Key stats: 478 saves (MLB record), 802 games finished (MLB record)
Awards: Reliever of the Year '91-92(NL); '94(AL); seven-time All-Star
Best HOF vote Pct.: 42% in 2003
Peers in Hall: Dennis Eckersley, Rollie Fingers
More stats and bio >

But Smith presented a compelling argument that lasted 18 seasons, during which he appeared in 1,022 games, which usually ended with him throwing the last pitch, good or bad. He holds another Major League record for most games finished -- 802.

Considering that he either saved or won more than half of them (549, to be exact), the good comfortably outweighed the bad. Does he have one more good finish in him?

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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