Lee Smith, Mussina took strange routes to stardom

KIDS' CORNER

July 10, 1994|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,Contributing Writer

Each major-league player at Tuesday's All-Star Game once was just a regular player on his Little League or high school team when he started.

Most are at different positions than when they started baseball.

Some players were the stars of their Little League teams. Some didn't even want to play the game, but accidentally got hooked.

Some didn't even start playing baseball until high school. Some needed lucky breaks.

One of those players who backed into baseball and received those breaks is Orioles All-Star reliever Lee Smith, who didn't play baseball until his senior year at Castor High School in Louisiana.

"My father brought home a pickup truck full of firewood one day and said he wanted me to help him unload it when I got home from school," Smith said. "I didn't want to work when I got home, so I thought I'd better do something to kill some time after school. So I asked the coach if I could play."

But Smith, who also was an all-state basketball player, wasn't the team's closer. The 6-foot-4, 175-pound 17-year-old instead started out on the receiving end of the pitches as a catcher.

Then, Castor's top pitcher got hurt in a hunting accident midway through the season. Smith filled in and ended up starting the rest of the games. In his first start, he pitched a no-hitter.

He was named Louisiana's Outstanding Class B Player and got drafted in the second round by the Chicago Cubs.

"I didn't even know they had a baseball draft," said Smith, baseball's all-time career saves leader, now two inches taller and about 90 pounds heavier than he was then.

"When I heard the Cubs picked me second, I thought they were crazy."

Other All-Stars, such as Orioles ace Mike Mussina, were the stars of their Little League team. Mussina, though, was a big hitter. He won two batting titles as a Little League shortstop in Montoursville, Pa.

He didn't get to the pitcher's mound until high school, where he also played football and basketball.

Unlike Smith, Mussina grew up playing the game, and got used to winning -- early and often.

"A lot of kids have that one special memory of the year that his team won the championship, but I don't really have any," Mussina said. "Every year my team won the league, and I got used to that."

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