As O's closer, Smith is no sleeper

February 20, 1994|By Ken Rosenthal

SARASOTA, Fla. -- When the Orioles were trying to sign Lee Smith, they didn't tell him about the two-mile run at the first spring workout.

"That Oatesy, he knows how much I hate to run, and the first day I'm here, he made me run around the whole city of Sarasota three times," Smith said yesterday.

No, the morning after was not good to the Orioles' new closer, not at age 36, not at 6 feet 6 and 269 pounds.

"My arm feels great," Smith told bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks. "But the rest of my body feels like I had a stroke."

Hendricks laughed.

That's Lee Smith.

"Nothing bothers him," said Orioles coach Davey Lopes, a former teammate of Smith's with the Chicago Cubs. "If it bothers him, you sure can't tell."

Fear not, Olson-breath, Smith knows when to turn it on. He's the game's all-time save leader, OK? He didn't get there by worrying. He didn't get there by running.

"I've seen him run more in two days here than he did in two years in Chicago," manager Johnny Oates joked, recalling when he was the Cubs' bullpen coach and Smith was their closer.

Oates laughed, but he isn't looking forward to the first time the 14-year veteran walks in from the left-field bullpen at Camden Yards.

"Lee Smith," he said, "doesn't hurry for anybody."

Heck, Smith won't even make his way out to the bullpen until the late innings. He prefers to watch the game on the clubhouse TV -- if he's not taking a nap.

"Some people look at him and say he doesn't care, but you don't have that type of success without caring," said Rich Gedman, who caught him in St. Louis and Boston. "He cares more than anybody."

He has earned 43 or more saves each of the past three seasons, OK? Oates prefers his players to be more staid, but with a future Hall of Famer as his closer, he knows he must adjust.

So, Smith can hang out in the clubhouse during games -- Gregg Olson always sat in the bullpen, but Oates said he was an exception, a closer who wanted to be part of the gang.

As long as Smith does his job -- as long as he doesn't turn the clubhouse into a flophouse -- he basically can do whatever he wants.

"Some people have certain strict rules on how to do things," Gedman said. "Lee's not a guy to who you say, 'You've got to do this, you've got to do that.' "

Said Oates: "If he does something I think is detrimental to the team, it will be addressed. The team comes first. As long as he doesn't do anything detrimental, I'll have no problem."

The man has a lifetime 2.91 ERA, OK? Blown saves bothered him early in his career, but no more. Smith tells his teammates, "I gave it up. See you tomorrow."

His wife, Diane, used to tape his games, and he'd rush home to watch. That, too, was long ago. "I haven't looked at tapes in 10 years," Smith said. "I have no use for it."

What about that pre-game regimen, Lee?

"Don't have any," he said. "I just play it by ear. I show up and say, 'OK, we're playing these guys.' I look at the lineup card, see who the extra players are. That's pretty much about it."

It's not that he doesn't work. It's not that he doesn't analyze. It's just that after all these years, he knows what must be done.

"I find it amazing how he's jumped around from team to team," said Jamie Moyer, another former Cubs teammate. "He can throw his glove on the field every year and get 30 saves."

He's a competitor, OK? Smith sits in the dugout for 10-15 minutes after every game. It's the only time he reflects. "When I walk into the clubhouse," he said, "it's over."

And his sleeping? Rest assured, Smith doesn't plan to snooze through games -- at least not at the start. He spent most of the past four seasons in the National League. He needs to catch up.

"Now I don't think I'll be taking my nap," Smith said ruefully. "I've got to look at the hitters. I've got to be thinking about the game. But if the time comes, I will -- if it's all right with Johnny."

Heck, with as many three-hour games as the Orioles play, Smith has the right idea. Then again, the way he trudges in from the bullpen, he's not going to help things any.

If you thought Smith took forever to get to the mound at Wrigley Field, where the bullpen is behind third base, just wait until he strolls in from the outfield at Camden Yards.

"They can make a lot of money off me," Smith joked. "They'll get to show a lot of commercials, especially in Baltimore. They probably can show a miniseries or a half-hour comedy series.

"[Former Cubs manager] Dallas Green would give me a hard time about it. He'd say, 'Why does it take you so long? The fans are falling asleep.'

said, 'Hopefully, the hitters are, too. I don't see anybody running out to the mound to face Mike Schmidt. They can't do nothing till I get there.' "

He's Lee Smith, OK?

He's coming.

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