The only thing slower than Lee Smith's typical 1/2 mph crawl/walk in from the bullpen back in the day is his forward progress toward the Hall of Fame.
Smith spun in place once again Wednesday when Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven, deservedly so, got the call to the Hall. Big Lee finished fifth with 45.3 percent of the votes, and he's not inching up the way Blyleven did in recent years. It appears Smith is not going to dramatically increase his support among 10-year members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, who retain a chokehold on the Hall voting despite a radically changed media landscape.
Smith proved his chops as a closer with the Cubs from 1982 to 1987, then took a grand tour through baseball with the Red Sox, Cardinals, Yankees, Orioles, Angels, Reds and finally the old Montreal Expos. He had 13 seasons as a full-time closer, racking up 478 saves, the all-time record before Trevor Hoffman blew past that number a couple of years ago.
The failure to launch in moving from 45 to the required 75 percent of the vote is simple: bad perception. A preponderance of the Hall voters are concentrated on the still-newspaper-rich Eastern seaboard. Two-plus seasons in Boston, a cameo appearance with the Yankees and one year in Baltimore was all the first-hand exposure Smith, never a media politician in the clubhouse, had to Cooperstown balloters.
Smith was not considered dominant as a closer despite consistently recording 30 or more saves a season and amassing almost a strikeout per inning over his career. Although he could hump it up past 95 MPH frequently, for whatever reason Smith was never considered as intimidating as Goose Gossage (who had plenty of Yankee Stadium exposure).
Never appearing in a World Series also hurt his Hall candidacy. Exposure in the Fall Classic always helps one's Hall credentials. Over the years, that was proven by a pair of third basemen, positively by Brooks Robinson and negatively by Ron Santo. You can't blame the Cubs entirely for Smith's inactivity most Octobers. He appeared in just two league championship series, with the Cubs in 1984 and Red Sox in 1988. He did not help himself, giving up five runs in 5 1/3 innings in those postseason toe-dips. If anything, Smith is best remembered for serving up Steve Garvey's game-winning, and series-momentum-changing, ninth-inning homer in Game Four of the NLCS in '84.
How Hall voters fairly judge candidates will always generate controversy. Their own credentials for voting are sometimes questionable. Baseball media lifers like Vin Scully and Milo Hamilton who have seen 'em all have no vote, but writers can be off the baseball beat for a generation -- having already put their decade in with the BBWAA -- and still have a ballot. How many of the actual voters actually saw Smith start to finish in his career, and actually took the measure of the man?
Smith has plenty of company in feeling short-changed. In fact, you could construct a shadow Hall for all those who should be in, but aren't. Santo would be posthumous president. All of it proves Cooperstown ranks far and above all other sports halls of fame in significance. Yet just like like the inability to reverse ump Jim Joyce's call that robbed Armando Galarraga of a perfect game, the flawed-but-human Hall voting process doesn't make it right in the end.