Lee Smith was ready to give up.
In 1979, the Cubs took him out of the starting rotation with the intention of moving him to the bullpen.
“At that time, it was a slap to be a relief pitcher,” Smith said Tuesday. “It was (viewed as) the guy is not good enough to start, so they’ll put him in the bullpen.”
Billy Williams, who went on to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1987, was tasked with explaining the logic behind the decision to Smith.
“(Williams) told me to give relief pitching a chance,” Smith said. “I thought that meant I wasn’t good enough to be a major leaguer.”
Smith then made a rash decision. He quit baseball and starting pursuing a different sport.
“I played college basketball and the Cubs sent me a contract for the next year,” he said. “I went to spring training and did that relief pitching thing. (Cubs manager) Lee Elia saw me possibly closing and six weeks later, I was in the big leagues. I was never sent down.”
From there, Smith emerged as one of the best closers in game, and when he retired in 1997, had more saves than anyone else with 478. That mark has since been surpassed by both Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera.
Smith became eligitble for the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2002, but never came close to receiving the necessary 75 percent required for induction.
However, in December of last year, he received 16 out of 16 votes from the Today’s Game Era Committee, cementing his place in Cooperstown as part of the Class of 2019.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “Since (Jane Forbes Clark) called me, it’s been a whirlwind. Everybody in my hometown has been calling and congratulating me. All the Hall of Famers have called me. It’s been great.”
Hall of Fame inductions are scheduled to take place on July 31.