Washed up? Smith is laughing at critics

May 03, 1994|By Bill Tanton

Of course the Orioles' Lee Smith is a little surprised that he has 12 saves already this season.

But he's not surprised for the reason most people would think.

"Yeah, I guess I'm a little surprised," says the club's closer, who is 12-for-12 in the save department. "I knew I could still throw hard. I never had any doubt that I could still pitch.

"But I thought with all the bats we have on this club we'd be scoring seven and eight runs a game. I didn't think there'd be this many save opportunities this early in the season."

For the record, the Orioles, who are fresh off being shut out for the first time, are averaging 5.5 runs per game.

What's the other reason why people might be surprised to see Smith far out front as the major leagues' save leader this season?

To put it bluntly, they were afraid he was washed up. They thought he was too old. They thought he had lost his fastball.

When the Orioles signed Smith on Jan. 29 as an unrestricted free agent, there was no dancing in the streets of Baltimore. Most fans were disappointed -- or worse -- that the Orioles had let Gregg Olson get away.

Olson holds the club career save record with 160. Gregg is still only 27 years old. The Orioles were the only club he had ever played for.

Then along comes Lee Smith, who has been in the majors since 1980, who has pitched for the Cubs, Red Sox, Cardinals and Yankees -- and who is 36 years old.

Sure, Smith was baseball's all-time save leader with 401 (now 413). But nobody seemed to mention that in discussing the new closer.

The emphasis was on the negatives -- which was nothing new to Smith.

At the Orioles' most recent home game last week, the afternooner with Oakland, Smith sat at his locker in the clubhouse and talked about that.

"I've saved a lot of money over the last three or four years," Smith said, "by not buying the newspapers and reading that you guys thought I was all through."

Coming from another player, a comment like that might offend a writer, particularly one who had never authored a negative word about Smith.

But Lee Smith is not an offensive person. He talks rather softly, has a sense of humor and he has a friendly smile, which he uses effectively in trying to make a point.

Furthermore, the guy is 6 feet 6 and weighs 269 pounds. Who's going to challenge him?

When you're going as great as Smith is, it's easy to be a nice guy.

Lee has appeared in 12 games and saved them all. No pitcher has ever reached the dozen save mark as early as Smith did, in the club's 23rd game.

His earned run average is 0.00. In his first month as an Oriole he gave up one walk.

Smith, who signed for one year at $1.5 million with incentives that could reach $2.5 million, was offered more money to go to Cleveland. He came here because he thought he had a better chance to play on a winner.

At this early point in the season and at a time when the average major-league salary is just over $1 million, Lee Smith looks like a steal.

As for Olson, who has a bad elbow and was placed on the Orioles' disabled list last Aug. 13, he's still on the DL with his new club, Atlanta.

The Braves reported yesterday that Olson is still in Florida at "extended spring training." That's no place for a ballplayer to be in May.

Chalk one up for Orioles general manager Roland Hemond.

"Lee is the one doing it," Hemond said yesterday. "When it became evident that Gregg Olson was going to sign with somebody else, Doug Melvin [assistant GM/player personnel] said, 'What about Lee Smith?' Frank Robinson said, 'That sounds good.'

"So we asked Fred Uhlman Sr. about Lee because he had watched him with the Yankees last September.

"Fred said Lee doesn't throw as hard as he used to, but he knows how to pitch and he throws hard enough. You don't get 46 saves [as Smith did last year, 43 of them with the Cardinals] if you don't know how to pitch. Peter Angelos said, 'Go ahead and sign him.' "

Hemond points out that Smith, as his career went along, has been smart enough to become a pitcher instead of just a hard thrower.

"A lot of pitchers stay with the same stuff," Hemond said, "but Lee refined his game and added to his repertoire.

"Warren Spahn did that, too. He added a new pitch about every five years. That's why Spahn was able to win 363 games."

Mentioning Smith in the same breath with Hall of Famer Spahn is not inappropriate.

As the game's all-time save leader, Smith would appear to be headed for Cooperstown. The icing he's putting on the cake this year helps his cause.

"When I was with the White Sox," Hemond said, "we had Tom Seaver with us for a while. I told him I'd be there when he went in the Hall of Fame and I was.

"One of these days I have to tell Lee Smith I'll be there for him."

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