It was the curse of the soft-throwing right-hander that brought Roy Smith to the Baltimore Orioles, and it will take him away someday. He has the wrong stuff, so he never is very far from the waiver list.
This is the way of the baseball world. Job security is measured in miles per hour, and Smith's fastball does not seriously exceed the posted speed limit. Here today, gone as soon as the next hard-throwing prospect needs a place on the roster. Nothing personal.
The Minnesota Twins released him after a 5-10 season last year. The Orioles signed him to a Rochester Red Wings contract and brought him back to the major leagues two weeks ago. He is 3-0 and he has pitched impressively in his first three starts, but he knows that the curse cannot be lifted in just a few games.
"That's just the way it is," said Smith, who will make his fourth start tomorrow against the Toronto Blue Jays at Memorial Stadium. "If a guy throws hard, there's the perception that the ability is there, so eventually it will come out. I had hoped that I could get to the point where you can lose a game or two and they don't question you, but I don't think I'll ever feel like I have it made."
It's almost a kind of pitching prejudice. New York Yankees pitcher Mike Witt was a combined 14-24 with a 4.35 ERA in 1989 and 1990. Smith was 15-16 with a 4.34 ERA over the same period. Witt got a three-year contract worth $8 million during the off-season. Smith got released. Figure that out.
If this doesn't seem quite fair, Smith doesn't seem very indignant about it. He isn't sure he got a fair shake from the Twins -- even a 10-6 record in 1989 couldn't persuade them to leave him in the starting rotation the whole season -- but he isn't ready to indict the entire sport.
"If I was scouting, I would go for the hard thrower, too," he said. "It's the same in basketball. You draft the best athlete."
The burden of proof always will be on the finesse guy. Smith is willing to accept it, just as he accepted the minor-league contract without even the mildest complaint. He has proved to be an important acquisition, but he's only as good as his next two-game losing streak.
The system isn't likely to change, and Orioles pitching coach Al Jackson said he isn't sure that there's anything wrong with it to begin with.
"It's hard to go wrong with a guy who throws 90 miles an hour," he said. "That's the way baseball people think, and I don't think anyone has been far wrong. It's a proven fact that a guy who throws 90 can put the ball in the wrong part of the [strike] zone and get away with it a lot more often than a guy throwing 80. And it's also a proven fact that pitchers lose velocity over time, so you'd rather start losing it from 90 than from 80."
For whatever reason, Smith never got a chance to get comfortable in the Twins rotation. He was pitching effectively in 1989 when the club traded left-handed ace Frank Viola to the New York Mets for three promising young pitchers, but he went to the bullpen so that the club could get a look at them.
He did not pitch well in 1990, which gave the club cause to hand him his unconditional release in December.
"I'm not unique," Smith said. "When things are going bad and a team's losing, changes are going to be made. I have no hard feelings. You have to be able to separate the business part of the game from the personal part. I think the Twins liked me, but they also doubted my ability."
* Hard-throwing right-hander Jeff Robinson had a 5.96 ERA last year, more than a run higher than Smith's, but the Detroit Tigers were able to get Mickey Tettleton from the Orioles in trade for him.
* Orioles teammate Jeff Ballard went 2-11 in 1990 and came back to be the Opening Day starter this year. He doesn't throw hard, but he is left-handed, which makes him much more valuable than an equivalent right-hander.
But even Ballard said he knows about the frustration that often comes with being a finesse pitcher.
"I think that people always lean toward the power pitchers first," he said. "If they can't get enough of them, then they go to the soft-throwing control guys. I think the game is really geared toward strikeouts. People get thrilled with them.
"When a pitcher throws hard and goes through a bad spell, people just assume he'll come out of it. The soft-throwing guy goes through a bad time and people get worried about it in a hurry."
Smith knows that better than anyone else. He has been back and forth between the major and minor leagues six times in his 13-year professional career. You can learn a lot.
"You won't find anybody in this league who knows more about himself than Roy Smith," Jackson said. "He knows his abilities and knows how to use them. That's what I call a pitcher. There may be guys who have more ability, but there is no one who knows how to pitch better than Roy Smith."
Roy Smith's major-league stats
Year ... Club ... . ..W-L ... ERA ... SHO ... IP .... H ... ER ... BB ... SO
1984 ... Cleveland ... 5-5 ... 4.59 ... 0 ... 86.1 ... 91 ... 44 ... 40 ...55
1985 ... Cleveland ... 1-4 ... 5.34 ... 0 ... 62.1 ... 84 ... 37 ... 17 ... 28
1986 ... Minnesota ... 0-2 ... 6.97 ... 0 ... 10.1 ... 13 ... 8 ... 5 ... . 8
1987 ... Minnesota ... 1-0 ... 4.96 ... 0 ... 16.1 ... 20 ... 9 ... 6 ... . 8
1988 ... Minnesota ... 3-0 ... 2.68 ... 0 ... 37.0 ... 29 ... 11 ... 12 ... 17
1989 ... Minnesota ... 10-6 ...3.92 ... 0 .. 172.1 ...180 ...75 .. 51 ... 92
1990 ... Minnesota ... 5-10 ... 4.81 ...1 .. 153.1 .. 191 ...82 ...47 ... 87
1991 ... Baltimore ... 3-0 ... 3.10 ... 1 ... 20.1 ... 17 ... 7 ... 4 ... .. 7
Totals ... .. .. .. .. 28-27 ..4.40 ... 1 ... 558.1 ...625 ...273 ...182 . 302