Besides fastball, change is No. 1 with Smith

May 03, 1994|By Tom Keegan | Tom Keegan,Sun Staff Writer

Oakland, Calif. -- He had to awaken at 5:30 in the morning to catch the bus that passed three all-white schools en route to the distant all-black one.

Then, when the schools finally were integrated in Castor, La., in 1969, he crossed picket lines of students and parents. The most TC hateful word in American slang screamed from signs that started, "Go home . . ."

This was how Lee Arthur Smith learned that he and his kind were not welcome at the kindergarten-to-12th-grade school in Castor. He crossed the lines because the schools were better, the times were changing, and it was within walking distance, if 3 1/2 miles away.

He remembers a few schools forfeiting basketball games rather than competing against a team that had a black player.

He remembers it all. Then he forgets it. He's good at that, at shrugging off unpleasant memories. "My wife gives me a hard time for going back to those same schools to sign autographs and talk to the kids," Smith said. "I tell her those kids weren't even born then. They had nothing to do with it.

"I have pretty thick skin. I don't hold a grudge. This country's changed. Some things still haven't changed, but some things have. Some of my friends I still see back home were the same ones holding the picket signs. Hey, people change."

People change. And so do pitchers.

Compare the words of his most grateful Orioles teammate to those of his first high school catcher to appreciate how much this pitcher has changed.

Smith saved 12 games in 12 April appearances. Mike Mussina, the winning pitcher in five of those games, watches Smith from the clubhouse television while icing his arm.

"To sit in here and watch him pitch on TV, you see how great his control is," Mussina said. "He works on one inch on either side of the plate. As a starter, you would love to be able to do that, and he does it on just about every single pitch. And when he misses, he misses by about two inches."

Danny Myers, who owns an insect control business outside of Dallas, remembers a different pitcher.

"Lee Arthur, that's what we called him growing up, Lee Smith is his stage name," Myers said. "I taught him how to pitch in high school. Between us we had a bunch of no-hitters. I can remember the first time he ever pitched. It was inside the gymnasium in the winter time. He was playing pickup basketball and the coach came up to him and said, 'I want you to pitch, you got them long arms and I want you to pitch.' "

Ronnie Daniels, the basketball and baseball coach at Castor, forever nagged Smith the basketball star to stop shooting hoops long enough to try baseball. Lee Arthur wanted no part of it. He finally agreed to at least throw in the gym, and Myers, a catcher when he wasn't pitching, strapped on the gear.

"I remember Lee Arthur throwing that ball on the hardwood floor and I was there trying to catch it," Myers said. "It was almost like playing dodgeball with a baseball coming at you 90 mph. I finally gave up."

Long before that, Daniels tried to persuade Smith to play baseball.

"Ever since one day in phys-ed class, when someone hit the ball way down the line, I picked it up and threw it to home plate, the coach kept asking me if I ever thought about playing baseball," Smith said. "I said no way am I ever playing baseball. I'm a basketball player."

Not his first love

It was only on a bet with his older brother, Willie, that Smith finally agreed to play baseball.

"He bet me $10 I wouldn't catch, so I said OK and I was the catcher until about halfway through the season when the pitcher got shot in a hunting accident and they asked me to pitch," Smith said. "I pitched a no-hitter my first time. Then I pitched from a windup the whole time, didn't matter how many men were on base, because I didn't know what the stretch was."

Still, he was no fan of baseball. Sure, when he was younger he enjoyed making the 18-mile trip with his father to watch the local high school hitting and pitching sensation, J. R. Richard, but for the most part, basketball was his thing.

Smith considered transferring to another high school when Daniels told him he wouldn't allow him to play basketball unless he continued to play baseball as well. He decided to stay and reluctantly played baseball.

He played basketball well enough to make recruiting visits to Kentucky and Arkansas. Smith said legendary Grambling football coach Eddie Robinson saw enough potential in him to try persuade him to come to Grambling to play quarterback, even though Castor didn't have a team.

Named the Outstanding Class B Baseball Player of Louisiana in 1975, his senior year, Smith was selected by the Chicago Cubs in the second round of the June draft.

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