Mediocrity is best pitch of Oriole hopeful Smith

Ken Rosenthal

March 28, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

His name is Roy Smith, which is perfect. Journeyman pitchers are supposed to be anonymous, but Smith is ignored even in his own clubhouse. He's usually reading a newspaper in front of his locker, all by himself.

LeRoy Purdy Smith III is his full name, and if the truth must be known, he stands a decent chance of pitching for the Orioles this season -- if not at first, then certainly once the Rochester shuttle resumes service.

By now, this saga is familiar. The Orioles usually carry at least one non-roster pitcher -- Kevin Hickey two years ago, Jay Aldrich last year. This time they might keep two, if Smith survives along with Mike Flanagan.

Smith, 29, is not a complete unknown. In fact, he's 4-0 lifetime against the Orioles, with each of those wins coming for Minnesota the last two years. This, however, is his 13th pro season. His career record is 25-27.

The Twins released him in December so they could select a Class A outfielder named Pat Howell in the major-league draft. Smith, a husky righthander, is accustomed to such fate. One way or another, he's always on the fringe of a transaction.

Even though it was nearly two years ago, he still claims the Frank Viola trade "killed me." Likewise, the Glenn Davis trade might have saved him. The Twins acquired five young pitchers for Viola. The Orioles gave up two for Davis. Simple journeyman's math.

He had just come home from playing basketball in Mount Vernon, N.Y., the day Twins general manager Andy MacPhail called with news of his release. His sister left him the message, and Smith recalls, "I knew what it was." He usually does.

The Phillies drafted him in 1979, then traded him and two others to Cleveland for John Denny in '82. Smith reached the majors in '84, but the Indians traded him to Minnesota in '86. He was released and re-signed at the end of that season.

Last year he worked 153 1/3 innings, more than every Oriole but Dave Johnson. But as he says, "I always knew there were doubts about my ability, even when I did well." Last year those doubts only increased. Used mostly as a starter, he finished 5-10 with a 4.81 ERA.

MacPhail told him, "I'd be very surprised if things don't work out for you very soon." But on a good day Smith throws only a RTC mediocre fastball. His opponents batted .313 last season. Hitters often figure him out after their first at-bat.

In January, he finally signed a Triple A contract with the Orioles, the only club to make him an offer. "For a while, there wasn't anything," he says. "I didn't expect anybody to be knocking my door down. But I figured there'd be some interest, someone who'd need a swing man."

The Orioles might, they might not; so much is uncertain, even this late in the spring. "We know he knows how to pitch. We know he can win in the big leagues," manager Frank Robinson says. "It's just a matter of whether he's one of the 10 best."

Not quite. The 10 best pitchers don't always make the staff, and this spring is no exception.

Take Jeff Robinson. He has a 7.71 ERA in four starts, but the Orioles will need to be further convinced they made a mistake acquiring him for Mickey Tettleton, if indeed they did.

Take Jose Bautista and John Mitchell. They're borderline pitchers, but because they're out of minor-league options, the Orioles can't return them to Triple A without taking the chance they'll be claimed by another team.

Robinson insists none of this will figure into his roster choices, but clubs routinely make the easiest possible moves, putting off trying decisions until the last instant. The Orioles are especially adept at such finagling.

At this point, it appears seven of their 10 pitching spots are taken: Ben McDonald, Jeff Ballard and Johnson will be in the rotation. Gregg Olson and Mark Williamson will be in the bullpen. Flanagan and Robinson will fit somewhere in between.

Where this leaves Roy Smith is anyone's guess. He has allowed only one earned run in nine spring innings (a homer by Dan Pasqua) but he believes his performance is largely irrelevant. "They know what I can do," he says. "It just comes down to what they really want."

Frankly, he needs Bob Milacki and Jose Mesa to pitch themselves off the team. He needs Robinson the manager to keep only one lefthanded reliever. To be perfectly honest, he needs a miracle to make the team right away.

Not that he's discouraged.

"If I had to draw a picture, this was it," he says. "Even if I don't make it, there's going to be movement. That's why I signed here. Not many contending clubs have the question marks this team does."

Sounds logical enough.

If he gets the chance.

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