By Bob Nightengale |
The door into Cooperstown swung wide open Sunday for designated hitter Harold Baines and closer Lee Smith when they were elected into Baseball’s Hall of Fame by Today’s Modern Game Era committee on Sunday.
Both players were snubbed by the baseball writers when they were on the ballot. Baines, the first DH to participate in an All-Star Game, never got above 6.1% of the vote before being removed from the ballot. Smith lasted all 15 years, but never got more than 50.6% in 2012, needing at least 75%.
“It just didn’t bode well for DHs, like we were just half a player,’’ said Baines, “that’s why I don’t think we got our just due.
“Maybe this will open the door for more DHs.’’
Yes, indeed, come on in Edgar Martinez, who’s in his final year of eligibility on the BBWAA ballot. Martinez also has been partly penalized for being a DH, but with Baines now being inducted in July, playing 1,643 of his 2,830 games as a DH, Martinez will be a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame when the voting is announced on Jan. 22.
“One thing that may have changed was I think the DH is getting more respect now than it used to,’’ said White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, one of 16 members of the committee. “People recognize David Ortiz will have to go in, and almost his whole career was as a DH. Frank (Thomas) was regarded most of his career as a DH. Edgar Martinez probably will get in, so think that attitude of people toward the DH changed quite a lot.’’
Smith, who plans to wear a Cubs’ cap while Baines will wear a White Sox cap, undoubtedly will join New York Yankees legendary closer Mariano Rivera into the Hall of Fame. They will help ease the path for future closers, with Smith openly lobbying for former New York Mets closer John Franco, who had 424 career saves.
The closer’s role has been diminished in today’s game with analytics dictating that closers can be just as valuable pitching earlier in games than the ninth inning.
“Where would teams be without closers?’’ Smith said. “Back in the day, relievers were the ones who weren’t good enough to be starters. But now, closers are so important. If you lose the game in the ninth inning, that hurts.”
Smith, who pitched 18 seasons, was the all-time saves leader upon his retirement with 478 career saves. He led the league in saves four times and had 30 or more saves in 11 seasons. He even finished in the top five of the Cy Young voting three times.
Yet, on this day, he was a unanimous selection by the 16-member committee.
“It’s unbelievable, man, it’s a hell of a birthday gift,’’ said Smith, who turned 61 on Dec. 4. “You think about this as a kid.’’
Baines, with Reinsdorf and Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa on the committee pushing for his election, received 12 votes, which was the 75% threshold needed.
“I looked at Tony La Russa,’’ Reinsdorf said, “and thought he was going to cry.’’
Baines might have beat him to those tears.
“I’m very shocked today,’’ said Baines, who produced 2,866 hits, 384 homers and 1,628 RBI with the White Sox retiring his number as an active player. “I’ve got four very proud kids today.’’
Smith, who was on a tractor shoveling snow when he got the call, still is numb over the news after so many years of disappointment.
“I didn’t always understand the voting how it worked,’’ Smith said, “but after the wait, it makes it even more sweet.’’