With Smith around, glass is always half-full

June 21, 1994|By Bill Tanton

This is one of those times when it's good to sit around and talk baseball with Lee Smith.

It made me feel better last night. I'll tell you why.

There are so many good things happening with the Orioles these days that everyone should be happy.

They're not, though.

In fact, there's a disturbingly unhappy undertone permeating the scene.

Despite last night's 6-5 loss in the series opener with Milwaukee, the Orioles continue to fight for first place in the tough AL East. They're

now three games back of the Yankees.

The crowds continue to pack Camden Yards.

Last night's sellout was the Orioles' 28th straight. The club is draw

ing at a rate that would top last year's all-time record 3,644,965.

Hey, you win a lot of games. You sell out the park.

What more is there?

There must be more because the team's owner, Peter Angelos, is taking shots at his manager, Johnny Oates.

In a Washington paper last Friday, Angelos was quoted as saying of Oates: "This guy's a problem. He's obstinate. An insecure man. I don't think he's a good leader."

And Oates -- a good man -- is so beaten down by the pressure that in the June 20 Sports Illustrated the manager confesses to writer Tim Kurkjian that he sat alone in a tunnel in Yankee Stadium recently and said, "Lord, I give up. Help me, please."

Overshadowing all that is the specter of another baseball strike, which would probably begin after the All-Star Game next month.

I don't get it.

Pete Angelos is the self-made Baltimore multi-millionaire who bought the Orioles last August and saved us from the penurious Eli Jacobs.

On top of that, Angelos promptly did what every Orioles fan hoped he'd do -- he forked over another $43.5 million for talent to turn this club into a winner.

As for Oates, the man is a perfectly competent big-league manager. He's been in the game 27 years, the last 13 as a coach or manager in the minors or the major leagues. He's intelligent. He works hard.

What does Angelos want -- 162-0?

And what did Angelos do as a kiss-and-make-up gesture? He wrote Oates a letter. A letter, for heaven's sake, when the situation called for an eyeball-to-eyeball talk.

The impending strike doesn't make any sense to me either, not when there's plenty of money out there for everybody.

All this explains why Lee Smith is such a welcome change.

L The huge relief pitcher pushes all that other baloney aside.

In his 15 years in the big league, Smith has seen it all -- strikes, outspoken owners, pink-slipped managers.

All he wants to do is drag his 6-foot-6, 269-pound frame out to the mound and close down another Orioles opponent.

"I don't want no strike," Lee says. "I'm finally having a good damn


Smith's 24 saves lead the majors. In a very short time, he has become a bit of a folk hero here.

"I got more recognition in Baltimore in the first few months," he said, "than I got in my whole career."

Smith likes playing for Johnny Oates. The two go back to the days when Lee was pitching for the Cubs and Oates was the bullpen coach.

"One thing about J.O.," said Smith, "if he thinks something, you don't have to read the Globe or the Post or whatever to find out. He tells you.

"When we were with the Cubs, he'd come to me and ask about my pitch selection. But he was always careful not to step on the pitching coach's toes. All J.O. wants is for you to be on time and give it all you've got."

The best manager Smith has played for on five major-league clubs?

"Joe Torre with the Cardinals," Lee said. "Joe treats 'em all the same. It don't matter if it's Cal Ripken or Jack Voigt."

When the Brewers were taking batting practice last night, Smith went over and greeted old friends Jody Reed, Jesse Orosco, coach Duffy Dyer and Greg Vaughn.

"Does it bother you," I asked Smith, "to have to throw that high inside pitch to an old friend?"

"Sheesh!" he said. "If I couldn't pitch against old friends, I'd have to quit, I know so many guys by now.

"I'll tell you -- there ain't nothing better than getting an old buddy out, and there ain't nothing better for him than to hit a bullet off my butt."

Smith believes there'll be a strike next month.

"It'll probably last a good while," he said. "If they couldn't reach an agreement in two years, I don't think they're going to reach one now.

"I hope people understand it's not like the players are asking for a raise. The owners agreed on revenue sharing, but they want us to pay for it.

"Nah, it looks like my fishing vacation is going to come early this year."

This would be a terrible year for Smith to go on strike. He thinks the Orioles have a good chance to get into the World Series, something that barely eluded him with the Cubs and Red Sox.

He has another goal that's within reach.

"I'd like to make the All-Star team," he said. "I've never done that. I don't know, though. Everybody'll probably be talking about the strike. That doesn't sound like much fun."

I like Smith's attitude. He loves to compete, but if things go wrong, he shrugs it off.

Johnny Oates should be more like that. So should Pete Angelos.

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