CHICAGO -- It's closing time for Lee Smith. This year is the last in which the dominant right-handed pitcher will be eligible for the Hall of Fame through the Baseball Writers' Association of America ballot.
Smith, who turns 59 on Dec. 4, finished his 18-year-old career with 478 saves, and he held the Major League record for career saves from 1993-2006. Trevor Hoffman then passed Smith's save total in '06, and finished his career with 601 saves, second only to Mariano Rivera's 652.
Only Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers, Dennis Eckersley, Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter have been inducted into the Hall of Fame based primarily on their relief pitching, and only Sutter was inducted with fewer innings or starting appearances than Smith.
But Smith hasn't gotten much support from the BBWAA. In the 14 previous years that he has been on the ballot, he has not received more than 50 percent of the vote, and last year, he garnered 34.1 percent.
A player's name must appear on at least 75 percent of the ballots to be elected, and voters can list up to 10 names. The announcement of the Class of 2017 is slated for Jan. 18 at 6 p.m. ET, and it will be simulcast on MLB Network and MLB.com The induction ceremony will be held on July 30 behind the Clark Sports Center in Cooperstown, N.Y.
"The only way I think Lee will get in is by the [Hall of Fame] Veteran's Committee," former teammate and Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins said. "For eight to 10 years, he was the all-time leader in saves. He was pretty dominant."
Jenkins has a rooting interest, and not just because he and Smith were teammates on the Cubs. In 1982, when Jenkins was 38, he helpd the then 24-year-old Smith develop other pitches. At the time, Smith was sharing the closer duties with Willie Hernandez and Bill Campbell.
"[Smith] was a relief pitcher, but he only had one pitch, a fastball," Jenkins said. "I helped him with his slider and his curveball. He developed a pretty good slider. As big as he is and as hard as he threw, he didn't have to do much to develop a good slider. He just had to use his hands. Within a week or so, he had a heck of a good slider. It didn't take long and then he started racking up the saves."
Smith was big at 6-foot 6-inches and an imposing figure on the mound. He didn't resist Jenkins' advice.
"Being young and trying to make the ballclub in '82, [Smith] had an open ear to what I was trying to tell him," Jenkins said. "I was trying to help him, and he knew that."
Smith, who was discovered by Buck O'Neil, and drafted by the Cubs in the second round in 1975, made his Major League debut in September 1980, and after adding that slider in '82, he got on a roll. Smith led the National League in saves in 1983 with 29, and did so again in 1991 with 47, and in '92 with 43. He then joined the Orioles and led the American League in saves in 1994 with 33.
Smith pitched for the Cubs from 1980-87, and also saved games for the Red Sox, Cardinals, Yankees, Orioles, Angels, Reds and Expos. The right-hander never won a Cy Young Award, but he did finish in the top 10 four times (1983, '91, '92 and '94), and also was as high as eighth in the Most Valuable Player Award voting in 1991. A seven-time All-Star, Smith won the Rolaids Relief Award three times (1991, '92, and '94).
And he listened to Jenkins.
"Someone of that strength, all he had to do was get another pitch and he became really dominant," Jenkins said.
And he did.
Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.