(Updated Jan. 18, 2017)
In 2017, his 15th and final year on the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot, Lee Smith failed to get elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Still, he’ll look back on his years with the Cardinals as having been a significant factor in his status as one of baseball’s best relief pitchers.
Smith spent more years (eight) and earned more saves (180) with his first team, the Cubs, than he did with any other in his 18-season big-league career. But his time with the Cardinals may have been his most dominant.
As a Cardinals closer from May 1990 to August 1993, Smith earned 160 saves, or 33.4 percent of his career total of 478. With the Cardinals, Smith led the National League in saves in 1991 (a NL-record 47) and in 1992 (43), achieving more than 40 in a season for the first time in his career. Smith finished second to the Braves’ Tom Glavine in the voting for the 1991 NL Cy Young Award.
Needing a closer to replace Todd Worrell, who was sidelined because of elbow surgery, the Cardinals acquired Smith from the Red Sox for outfielder Tom Brunansky on May 4, 1990. At the time, the Cardinals were in last place in the National League East Division. St. Louis had recorded five saves _ two from Scott Terry and one apiece from Bob Tewksbury, Rick Horton and Ken Dayley.
The Red Sox wanted to unload Smith because they already had a closer, Jeff Reardon, and Smith was headed to free agency after the season. The Cardinals traded Brunansky because he also was eligible to be a free agent after the season. The Cardinals had tried to negotiate a multi-year deal with Brunansky before trading him, but “he wanted a no-trade contract and we don’t have that in St. Louis,” Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog told the Associated Press.
The Braves had offered the Red Sox two pitchers for Smith and thought they had an edge over the Cardinals. “We offered them a heck of a deal.” Braves general manager Bobby Cox said to The Sporting News. “The trade doesn’t make sense to me … What it amounts to is one free agent traded for another.”
Smith welcomed the trade because Herzog informed the right-hander he would be used as the closer. With Reardon the primary closer in Boston, Smith said he “sort of felt like the odd man out.”
“I’m going to get an opportunity to pitch in the situation that I’m used to,” Smith told The Sporting News.
Smith earned his first save for the Cardinals on May 11, 1990, pitching a flawless ninth inning in relief of starter Bryn Smith in St. Louis’ 5-2 victory over John Smoltz and the Braves. Boxscore Smith posted 27 saves and a 2.10 ERA for the 1990 Cardinals and re-signed with them.
In 1993, he had 43 saves but a 4.50 ERA. Less than two hours before the Sept. 1 trade deadline, the Cardinals dealt Smith to the Yankees for pitcher Rich Batchelor.
Smith was headed to free agency again after the season. St. Louis, 10 games behind the first-place Phillies in the NL East and knowing it was unlikely to re-sign him, decided to try to get something in return. The Yankees, 1.5 games behind first-place Toronto in the American League East at the time of the trade, were seeking a replacement for closer Steve Farr, who had an elbow injury.
Cardinals pitcher Bob Tewksbury told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “When they traded for Lee in 1990, I was the one who got sent down (to the minor leagues). But over the course of the last three years he saved more games for me than anyone. He was very special to me.”
Smith pitched eight games for the Yankees. He went on to play for the Orioles, Angels, Reds and Expos, but never again put up the kinds of numbers he did with the Cardinals. He was the Cardinals’ career saves leader until Jason Isringhausen broke the record in 2006.
Smith was major-league baseball’s career saves leader when he retired after the 1997 season. Today, his 478 saves rank third all-time, behind Mariano Rivera (652) and Trevor Hoffman (601). But Smith’s Hall of Fame chances likely were hurt by his won-lost record of 71-92 and never having played for a pennant winner.