COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Lee Smith never imagined that he would wind up on stage at the Clark Sports Center and have a plaque on the wall of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, so he was determined to enjoy every minute of his weekend in the historical spotlight.
“Man, I came from a town that don’t have a red light," he said during the run-up to Sunday’s induction ceremony. “You just don’t think about things like that.”
Smith spent 17 years in the major leagues and was the game’s all-time leader with 478 saves when he retired as a player in 1997. His career took him on a long journey that passed through eight cities, including one brief stop in Baltimore, where he won the major league save title during the strike-shortened 1994 season.
The journey that brought him to Cooperstown took a little bit longer. He never was named on the required 75% of ballots to gain induction through the lengthy Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) election process and had to wait for the Hall’s “Today’s Game Era” committee to choose him last December.
Just for context, fellow 2019 inductee Mariano Rivera had a total of 32 saves when Smith retired and they were side-by-side Sunday. Trevor Hoffman, who broke Smith’s record before Rivera broke his, had 140 saves when Smith retired and was inducted last year.
For the record, though Smith did not get enough votes in the BBWAA election, I checked the box by his name in every Hall of Fame election in which I was permitted to vote. I mean, how could you not vote for the guy who — at the time — held the all-time save record for more than a decade?
Smith displayed no rancor Sunday over the length of time he had to wait for induction, instead thanking everyone, including the baseball writers, for the support he has received since his retirement.
Mostly, he used his 13 minutes to thank his family for a lifetime of support and give a blow-by-blow account of a career during which he played for eight teams.
“It began with my parents, my grandparents and my oldest sibling who taught me the invaluable [principles] of life,’’ Smith said. “Treat people the way you want to be treated. Treat people the same no matter who they are and, most importantly, always be respectful.”
Those lessons were learned in the tiny backwoods town of Castor, La., where Smith dreamed of being a college basketball player, but was steered to baseball by his high school principal, who bought him a glove and spikes because his family couldn’t afford them. Just a couple of years after reluctantly agreeing to play, he was taken by the Chicago Cubs in the second round of the 1975 draft.
“It was the community that gave me the chance to play baseball,’’ Smith said.
Still, Smith faced one more detour before he emerged as the most prolific closer of his generation. He didn’t want to be a relief pitcher. He figured he was on his way to the major leagues when the Cubs decided to continue his minor league development in the bullpen.
“I was discouraged," he said. “In those days, you wanted to be a starter. At the end of the 1979 season, I packed my bags and instead of going on a 10-day road trip, I went home. I think now it’s hard to believe I didn’t want to sign that next year’s contract. Well, thank God for Billy Williams. He knocked some sense in me. He explained that the game was changing and relief pitching would be nice.”
Williams was among the Hall of Famers sitting on the stage Sunday, smiling as Smith told the story of what was really the beginning of his Hall of Fame career.
Smith also credited Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins for helping him develop into a dominating pitcher.
“He was a teammate, a pitching coach and like an older brother," Smith said. “He was someone to look up to. He also taught me a great curveball, a third pitch that became very valuable out of the bullpen.”
The rest, of course, is baseball history. Smith would lead his league in saves four times and saved 30-or-more games 11 times. Then all he had to do was wait another 22 years for anybody to notice.