In traditionally closing the door to the relievers who specialize in closing the door, the Baseball Hall of Fame is no different from the Football Hall of Fame or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Most specialists get in only with a ticket.
So it is that Phil Niekro is in Baseball's Hall, but Bruce Sutter is not; that Jim Otto is in the Football Hall, but Ray Guy is not; and that Bruce Springsteen is in the Rock Hall, but Clarence demons is not. To the leading man, not the Big Man, goes the glory.
That was the historical bias confronting Lee Smith, the career saves leader, upon his first appearance on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot this year. (Results were announced Tuesday, after SI went to press.) Two relief pitchers had already made it into the Hall: Hoyt Wilhelm, an all-purpose reliever who might pitch for one inning or six, and Rollie Fingers, the fireman-type, who pitched in times of trouble. But no closer—that is, one who only pitches late and with a lead—had ever been enshrined in Cooperstown.
The closer evolved in 1979 with Sutter, and since then he, Goose Gossage, Jeff Reardon, Tom Henke and the rest of the genus have received tepid Hall support. Considering the heavier lifting done by starting pitchers and position players, that's only right. Smith, for instance, typically napped for the first half of games and in 1994 had 33 saves in less than 39 innings of labor. (Kickers are the closers of football, enjoying stretches of tedium and disuse interrupted by the occasional emergency. No surprise, then, that no pure punter and only one pure placekicker, Jan Stenerud, can be found in Canton.)
Specialists should be held to a much higher standard than other players when it comes to Hall membership, but some have met that standard and deserve enshrinement. In that category is Dennis Eckersley, who'll be on next year's ballot. In 1988 Eckersley further refined the Sutter role, typically entering at the start of the ninth with a slim lead. Over the next decade Eckersley's ratio of innings-to-saves was 1.7:1, about half that of Sutter's 3-5 and not close to Fingers's 5.0. Yet no closer has ever been so dominant. In 1990 Eckersley actually had more saves (48) than base runners allowed (45)-Eckersley was also effective over the long haul—from '88 to '97 he averaged 37 saves per year. It's true that with 149 career wins as a starter, he may bear more resemblance to quarterback-kicker Hall of Earner George Blanda than to Stenerud, but it's Eckersley's work as a specialist that makes him, well, special enough for the Hall.