Smith represents last of 15-year HOF candidates

Smith represents last of 15-year HOF candidates

For nearly two decades, opponents knew their time was running short when Lee Smith took the mound.

But now, after an extended stay on the Hall of Fame ballot, Smith is in danger of seeing his own Hall of Fame chances come to a close.

Smith, a seven-time All-Star closer, is in his 15th and final year on the Hall of Fame ballot, the results of which are set to be announced Wednesday (6 p.m. ET live on MLB Network and simulcast live on beginning at 5 p.m.). This is Smith's final opportunity to be voted in by the Baseball Writers' Association of America, and in what will make for a fun trivia question, he is the final player who will get a 15th chance. Out of a group that also included Don Mattingly, Jack Morris and Alan Trammell, Smith is the last player who was grandfathered past a Hall of Fame rule change made in 2014 that cut a player's maximum tenure on the BBWAA ballot from 15 to 10 years.

The odds are long for Smith -- who pulled in 34.1 percent of ballots last winter -- to make the most of his final opportunity. As we bid goodbye this year to a Hall of Fame voting era, here are some things you should know about the players who spent the maximum 15 years on the BBWAA ballot:

• A total of 39 players, including Smith, have graced the ballot a full 15 times since the Hall of Fame changed the maximum tenure from 25 years to 15 in 1962. Of those before Smith, only two, Ralph Kiner and Jim Rice, gained election in his final opportunity. Kiner, elected in 1975, had actually been on only 13 ballots, but the BBWAA did not hold votes in 1963 and '65, yet counted them as years of eligibility.

• Nine other 15-timers were later voted into the Hall of Fame as either players or managers by the Veterans Committee, with Joe Torre being the most recent (2014). Mattingly, Morris and Trammell could all get their first chance with the Today's Game Era Committee at the 2018 Winter Meetings for induction in 2019.

• Smith will hope to avoid the heartbreak suffered by Nellie Fox, who came the closest of any 15th-year candidate without gaining election. The former White Sox second baseman garnered 74.7 percent in 1985, missing election by only two votes, but he was eventually elected 12 years later by the Veterans Committee. Pitcher Jim Bunning went through similar heartbreak and redemption, missing election by four votes in 1988 (his 12th year on the ballot); he was also elected later by the Veterans Committee.

• Even if Smith isn't elected on Wednesday, he may hope to follow the examples of others by gaining momentum in his swan song with the BBWAA. Of the 38 previously mentioned players, 11 have earned their highest vote totals in year No. 15. That includes Rice, who garnered 76.4 percent in his final chance, and five other players (Orlando Cepeda, Bill Mazeroski, Red Ruffing, Ron Santo and Torre) who eventually reached Cooperstown via a runoff election or through the Veterans Committee.

• Richie Ashburn, Mazeroski and Santo -- three who spent a full 15 years on the ballot -- are of particular inspiration for Smith. Ashburn debuted at just 2.1 percent, Mazeroski at just 6.1 percent and Santo at just 3.9 percent -- and now they are all Hall of Famers. Smith, meanwhile, debuted at a comparatively robust 42.3 percent of the vote in 2003.

• If Smith doesn't get elected this year, he can take small consolation in that he faced a higher degree of difficulty than some of his peers in terms of just staying on the ballot. Eleven of the maximum-stay players before Smith garnered less than 5 percent at least once, before the Hall rigidly enforced the cutoff rule. If Smith had received less than 5 percent in any year of his ballot tenure, we wouldn't be discussing his candidacy today.

Matt Kelly is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.