Carefree Lee is a serious Smith, too

July 12, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

PITTSBURGH -- The first arrivals -- Frank Thomas, Will Clark and Mickey Tettleton -- strolled into the American League clubhouse at 11:50 a.m.

Cal Ripken and Ricky Bones followed at 12:10 p.m. Mike Mussina arrived on the team bus at 12:40, with the AL workout still 2 1/2 hours away.

Lee Smith?

"When do we start playing?" Mussina asked. "Tomorrow, he'll be here tomorrow."

An hour later, Mussina stared into Smith's locker, saw it was still empty, and smiled.

"He's in no hurry," Mussina said. "He doesn't have to be here until the ninth inning tomorrow, and he knows it."

And then, at 1:55, Mr. Smith appeared at the door.

"We're going out tonight!" said one of the Pirates' visiting clubhouse attendants, who remembered Smith from the National League.

Smith greeted the kid warmly, then started making his rounds, in his usual slow motion. The first player he spotted was Clark, a fellow Louisianan.

"It'll be a little hard taking a nap with all these people around here," the Texas first baseman said.

"You don't know me that well," Smith replied.

Actually, Smith makes exceptions at the All-Star Game.

He shows up early to autograph memorabilia.

And he refrains from taking his beloved in-game nap.

"It's the only time I get to see nine innings," Smith said. "I guess I can stay awake for this one."

Indeed, the loose, informal All-Star atmosphere is perfect for the Orioles' closer, who is making his sixth All-Star appearance, and first for the AL.

Nothing bothers Smith -- not even the fans at BWI airport who stopped him yesterday morning and reminded him of the game-winning homer he allowed to Oakland's Mark McGwire on Sunday.

"I think I was killing them in that Rotisserie League thing," Smith said. "That's what gets you a lot of fallout with fans.

I probably cost some guy six bucks. But I figure, with 29 saves, I've already made them five or six bucks.

"That's when you find out who your fans are. They'll probably trade me straight up for [Pittsburgh infielder] Tom Foley."

Businessman that he is, Smith keeps track of such commerce.

"I guess the owner's son bought some bubble card of mine for 50 cents," he said. "I ain't signing for that much."

Smith was a little confused -- Outside Pitch magazine reported that Peter Angelos' son, John, picked him up in a Rotisserie League for 50 cents -- but everyone chuckled along.

"Half the time I don't laugh at Smitty because I don't understand what he says," Mussina said. "He gets going, and everyone's laughing, so I figure it must be funny.

"I'm getting used to it. He's got phrases, I've got no idea what they mean. I wouldn't know how to spell 'em. And you probably couldn't print 'em."

The one-liners just keep coming.

And Smith always gets the last laugh.

At 36, he's a year younger than the oldest All-Star, Paul Molitor. Eleven players in tonight's game are current or former teammates of his. The Orioles are his fifth club.

The Cubs traded Smith for Al Nipper and Calvin Schiraldi. The Red Sox traded him for Tom Brunansky. The Cardinals traded him for Rich Batchelor. And the Yankees lost him to free agency.

Five teams, six All-Star Games, a record 430 saves.

"I don't really consider anyone an idol, but when you mention closers, you've got to mention Lee Smith," San Francisco closer Rod Beck said. "He's the ultimate right now."

Smith might act carefree, but Ripken marvels at his professionalism, the way he takes control in the ninth innning, how "his whole day revolves around that moment."

The players respect him, revere him.

Joke with him, too.

"Am I going to get a slider from you or a fastball?" Ken Griffey asked, seeking an edge for the next Seattle-Baltimore series.

"You don't need the help," Smith replied.

Yet, seeing Griffey gave Smith an idea. Several bats sat in his locker. Why were they there, seeing as how he probably won't hit tonight?

"Just to get autographed to sell during the strike," Smith said, laughing. "I'll get Ken Griffey to sign all of them."

Just then, Smith spotted Joe Carter entering the clubhouse.

"Don't be afraid to come in on time," Smith shouted, having beaten Carter to the park by 40 minutes.

As usual, he's enjoying himself.

Tonight, he might even stay awake.

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