By Ross Forman
After an 18-year career in Major League Baseball with 478 saves, which is the third-most in history, Lee Smith is simply remembered as a seven-time All-Star, three-time Rolaids Relief Man Award-winner and four-time saves leader.
He is not a Hall of Famer, despite spending all 15-years on the ballot, culminating this past January with yet another no-call from the Hall.
“When I first went on the ballot, I was all excited, thinking I had an opportunity to go in; I thought my stats were there with the guys already in the Hall,” Smith said. “My stats didn’t get any better over the 15 years (that I was on the ballot).
“The one thing that was really disappointing was, the people who also were on the ballot (and how they impacted me). Sure, it was disappointing (not getting elected), but it was great hearing guys like (Hall of Famer) Mike Schmidt say, ‘Lee was one of the best players I’ve faced.’ That was nice to hear, means so much.”
Yes sir, Smith was a stud in the final inning of games.
Smith pitched for eight teams in the majors, most notably for the Chicago Cubs, with whom he spent his first eight seasons. His career also included time with the Boston Red Sox (1988–1990), St. Louis Cardinals (1990–1993), New York Yankees (1993), Baltimore Orioles (1994), California Angels (1995–1996), Cincinnati Reds (1996) and Montreal Expos (1997).
He was, without question, one of the most dominant closers in baseball history. Smith held the major league record for career saves from 1993 until 2006 before being passed by San Diego’s Trevor Hoffman.
Mariano Rivera now sits in the top spot of MLB’s all-time saves leader board with 652 saves, followed by Hoffman (601). Francisco Rodriguez is fourth all-time with 437, followed by John Franco (424) and Billy Wagner (422).
“Just getting to the big leagues and the guys who I met was a highlight, such as one of the first guys I ever met in baseball: Bruce Sutter,” Smith said. “I have to say, 18 years went by fast, really fast. So that’s one of the things I tell the kids nowadays – don’t take anything for granted; (your active career) could be taken from you very easily. I also stress the importance of getting an education because the chance of getting to the big leagues is, what, less than one percent, so you have to make sure you have something to fall back on, if you don’t have baseball.”
When asked what stands out the most from his run in baseball, Smith replied, “longevity.”
“Ozzie Smith always said, ‘I can’t wait till we get that ball to you in that situation (to save a win).’ That’s a good feeling,” said Smith, who was an imposing, intimidating mound man, standing 6-foot-6 and weighing about 265 pounds.
Smith set a National League record in 1991 with 47 saves for the St. Louis Cardinals, and was runner-up for the league’s Cy Young Award; it was the second of three times he led the NL in saves. He also during his career led the American League (AL) while with the Baltimore Orioles in 1994.
He set the major league career record for games finished (802), and his 1,022 career games pitched were the third-most in history when he retired. Smith still holds the team record for career saves for the Cubs (180).
Smith said his toughest out was Schmidt.
“Mike wore me out when I was with the Cubs. I could throw tough pitches to him, but there was something about him; he could hit anything,” he said.
Conversely, John Kruk and the late Tony Gwynn also seemed stymied by Smith.
“(Kruk) hit the ball hard off me a few times, but I don’t think he ever got a hit,” Smith said, laughing. “Sure, Tony would hit a lot of line drives off me, but he’d hit into a lot of outs.”
A Louisiana native, who still lives in Shreveport, Smith was drafted in the second-round by the Cubs in 1975 and began his professional career as a starting pitcher. But he struggled.
In 1978 with the Class-AA Midland Cubs, Smith was moved to the bullpen by manager Randy Hundley – and Smith was none too happy.
He ultimately landed in Chicago on Sept. 1, 1980, making his debut against Atlanta.
Smith ended his career with a 71-92 overall record and a 3.03 ERA and 1,251 strikeouts.
Shortly after retiring, Smith returned to the San Francisco Giants organization as a minor league coach – and he still serves as a roving pitching coordinator for the Giants.
“It’s really good getting to work with the young kids,” said Smith, who appeared at the mid-February Tristar Productions card show in Houston – wearing a Cubs hat.
“After 108 years, you had to pull for them (last season). They have a young ball club, and couldn’t have a better manager,” Smith said. “Joe Maddon, I’ve known him forever and there’s not a better baseball guy than Joe; there’s no better person than Joe Maddon.”
Smith said the thing that worried him the most about the Cubs’ 2016 World Series run was that the team clinched its division title so early, so they didn’t have a must-win situation just to make the playoffs.
“But we saw what they ultimately did, which was great … and I think the Cubs, being such a young team, probably will be a team to reckon with for years to come,” he said.
Will the Cubs repeat in 2017?
“That’s tough (to say); the 162-game regular-season is tough,” Smith said. “But, it wouldn’t surprise me (if the Cubs repeat). They have so much in their minor league system, and so many good, young major league players, such as (Anthony) Rizzo.”
That said, Smith was quick to point out that the Giants also have a talented, young team – and the Giants’ addition in 2017 of closer Mark Melancon will be a “big, big asset to team.”
Melancon is a three-time All-Star, including the past two seasons. He was the 2015 NL saves leader and spent last season with Pittsburgh and Washington.
Smith said watching baseball as a fan is fun for him, but tough.
“As my friend Dave Stewart once said, you’re watching pitch by pitch throughout the whole game. And that’s true,” he said. “One thing that’s really tough for the fans is, the guys move around (to different teams) so much; it’s tough to get attached to a player or a team.”
Smith’s baseball paper trail dates back to 1982 with rookie cards from Topps, Fleer and Donruss. He has since appeared on limited-edition, autographed cards and more.
Smith is a collector, too.
“I’m definitely going to get some (autographs at the Tristar show), such as Hakeem Olajuwon and others,” he said. “After all, basketball was my first love. In fact I thought I had a better jump shot than a fastball, but it didn’t work out like that.”