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How Lee Smith quickly won over at least one old-school, workhorse starting pitcher for the Cubs

Years later, Smith, Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman and other elite closers have begun to win over Hall of Fame voters.

Chicago Cubs v San Diego Padres
Lee Smith in 1986.
Photo by: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

If old-school workhorse pitcher Rick Sutcliffe was less than enthusiastic about what a closer could do for him – never mind the heresy of one in Cooperstown – that might have changed the first day he pitched for the Cubs after a midseason trade in 1984.

A walk, an error and double leading off the bottom of the ninth turned a shutout bid into a 4-1 lead for the Cubs and a save situation.

“[Manager] Jim Frey came out and said, ‘I’m going to go to the bullpen,’ “ Sutcliffe said. “I told him, ‘Who the [expletive] you gonna bring in? Look down there. Who’s better than me?’

“And he said, ‘I’m going to bring in Smitty.’ And I look down and said, ‘Oh, [expletive], I’ve heard of him.’ “

Lee Smith took over, and two outs later Sutcliffe had the first of 16 wins in 20 starts for the Cubs on the way to an unlikely Cy Young award.

“He comes in there throwing 100, and you could have caught me with a frickin’ shower shoe at that point,” Sutcliffe said.

Smith walked three and allowed two of Sutcliffe’s runners to score before finishing off the save. But don’t let that get in the way of a good story, a much bigger story that included 478 career saves and continues with Smith’s induction into the Hall of Fame on Sunday.

“One of my favorite all-time teammates,” Sutcliffe said. “I called him my safety net because when I came here, I never had a true closer.

“A quality start for me was shaking the catcher’s hand when it was over with. But it’s really nice to know that you have that safety net down there in a guy like Lee Arthur. It was like, ‘Maybe once in a while I can be honest with my manager now.’ “

Smith is one of eight closers elected to the Hall, one of two this year, joining Mariano Rivera. A third, Trevor Hoffman, was inducted last year, signaling a possible change in consensus thinking on relievers and the Hall.

“To be able to just air it out for six innings and have quality in the seventh, eighth and ninth – there were a lot of championships that came out of that,” Sutcliffe said.

DID YOU KNOW

  • The Wrigley Field “basket” at the top of the outfield wall was installed after the first homestand of 1970 following incidents during the 1969 pennant race and again in the 1970 opener of fans jumping onto the field from the bleachers. “Whoever thought about that basket, whenever that occurred, tell the thank you,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said Tuesday after Kyle Schwarber hit a walkoff homer into the left-field basket – a night after the Reds dropped two homers into the basket. “When it works for you, it’s awesome.”
  • Five of the eight Hall of Famers who were primarily relievers in their careers pitched for the Cubs, including the first one elected (Hoyt Wilhelm) and the most recent (Lee Smith). Also: Dennis Eckersley, Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter.

HIDDEN FIGURES

1.245 – OPS in first 10 career big-league games for Robel Garcia, who after playing in independent and Italian leagues the last five years, had a .958 OPS in two minor-league stops this year to earn his debut.

12 – Hall of Famers who have played for both the Cubs and Cardinals, with the induction this weekend of Lee Smith (Also: Pete Alexander, Roger Bresnahan, Lou Brock, Three Finger Brown, Dizzy Dean, Dennis Eckersley, Burleigh Grimes, Rogers Hornsby, Rabbit Maranville, Bruce Sutter and Hoyt Wilhelm)

2 – Hall of Famers who were All-Star players for both the Cubs and Cardinals (Smith, Sutter).

5 – Home series against the Padres the Cubs have won in the 18 seasons since MLB instituted an unbalanced schedule in 2001 – second-fewest against any National League opponent (Braves, four).

THAT’S WHAT HE SAID

“I will give it to my wife. Maybe. She doesn’t want it.”—Cubs pitcher Yu Darvish on the game ball he received after earning his first victory at Wrigley Field as a Cub on Wednesday.

“I don’t mind. At least they remember who I am.”—Former Cubs pitcher Ernie Broglio, to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2014, on his place in fame as the lesser part of one of the most lopsided trades in history (going to the Cubs from the Cardinals for Lou Brock). Broglio died Tuesday at 83.

“He’s more of an animal on the mound.” – Anthony Rizzo on the difference in Cubs teammate Yu Darvish, who has back-to-back scoreless starts for only the third time in his career (first since 2014) as he takes the mound Monday in San Francisco.