WATERVILLE — Lee Smith belongs in the Baseball Hall of Fame. But in his 15 years on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot, Smith never received the requisite 75 percent of the vote to earn the call to Cooperstown. Now he goes off the ballot, and he plays the waiting game.

“I hear my chance is looking better for the veterans committee. My stats aren’t going to get any better,” Smith said.

On Saturday morning, Smith was in Waterville for the dedication and opening of Purnell Wrigley Field, the youth baseball/softball field replica of the home of the Chicago Cubs. Smith played the first eight seasons of his 18 season Major League career with the Cubs. He pointed to the houses behind Purnell Wrigley Field and noted the ballpark is in a neighborhood, just like the real Wrigley. When will somebody build rooftop seats on the condos beyond the right field fence, Smith joked.

In his era, 1980-1997, the 6-foot-5 Smith was one of the most intimidating and effective closers in the game. He retired with the all-time saves mark, and his 478 saves is still third-best all time, behind Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman. Smith recorded 30 or more saves 10 times in his career, and led the league in saves four times. In 1991, Smith saved a career-high 47 games for the St. Louis Cardinals and finished second in the National League Cy Young voting.

These days, people break down Hall of Fame credentials with analysis of all kinds of statistics. While I appreciate the advanced study of sabermetrics and acknowledge its place in baseball, when it comes to the Hall of Fame, I prefer the eyeball test. In his era, was the player in question one of the dominant players at his position?

In Smith’s case, the answer is yes.

Smith never received more than 50.6 percent of the vote from the baseball writers. That came in 2012, and in 2014, Smith slipped back to just 29.9 percent of the vote. Last season was Smith 15th and final season on the ballot. He garnered only 34.2 percent of the vote.

“One year you go up. The next year you go down, it depends on who’s on the ballot. I know it’s a tough job for the guys who vote, to pick who they think belong in the Hall of Fame. Stats don’t get any better. They don’t get any worse,” Smith said. “One guy said to me, ‘The guys that vote now may have never seen you play. The guys are younger, the voters.’ They don’t need to be able to see me play. My stats aren’t changing.”

Relief pitchers have always struggled to find love from the Hall of Fame voters. Of the closers in the Hall, only Dennis Eckersley, who spent the first half of his career as a starter, and John Smoltz, who closed for the Atlanta Braves for three seasons but spent most of his career as a starter, got in on the first ballot. Rollie Fingers was inducted on his second try. Rich “Goose” Gossage got into the Hall on his ninth ballot. Bruce Sutter was inducted on his 13th try. Earlier this season, Hoffman and his 601 career saves finished fourth in the Hall of Fame vote. With 327 votes, Hoffman just missed induction on his second try. Rivera is eligible for the Hall in 2019, and he’ll likely be a first ballot inductee.

The closer has evolved from a guy who might have to work multiple innings for a save, to a guy who is for the most part a ninth inning specialist. Smith’s career straddled both eras. For example, in 1984 and 1994, Smith had 33 saves. In 1984 with the Cubs, Smith threw 101 innings for those 33 saves. In 1994, playing for the Baltimore Orioles, Smith saved 33 games while pitching just 39 1/3 innings.

Smith thinks he’s been lumped in with a legions of closers who have come and gone over the last two decades, when he should be included among the likes of Fingers, Gossage, and Sutter, who were asked to pitch a heavier load.

“I think they’re trying to figure out that relief pitcher thing. People say, ‘well it’s easy.’ If it were that easy, everybody would have a good closer.

They put me in that category with guys pitching one inning or less. I’m like, ‘dude, I pitched two innings, three innings.’ Back in the day, we pitched in tie games,” Smith said. “That stigma, one inning specialist. No, I pitched in tie games, three innings. I pitched four innings a couple times.”

In 1986, Smith tied for the Cubs team lead in wins, with nine. He also had 31 saves that season. Smith’s job wasn’t just to close games, it was to keep them close and give his team a chance to win.

“I led the team in wins because I’d come in, at the time we were losing, down by one in the seventh inning. They’d bring me in, I held them, we’d score a couple runs and I won the game,” Smith said.

Smith said his favorite memories of his career are of the times he spent with the game’s other top players at All-Star games. Being considered among the elite was special, he said.

“When you hear the Mike Schmidts, Pete Rose, Barry Bonds, say he’s one of the best pitchers I ever faced, that’s a good feeling. To be put into that category of Hall of Fame is unbelievable. To be thought of to be in that elite class,” Smith said, and paused. “We’ll see what goes on with the veterans committee.”

Smith said his name will likely come before the Hall’s veterans committee in 2018. Here’s hoping they use the eyeball test, remember Smith’s career, and give him the call he deserves.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM