Survivors of '81 strike expect to survive 1994's Veterans recall heading home, making ends meet

August 07, 1994|By Tom Keegan | Tom Keegan,Sun Staff Writer

MILWAUKEE -- For Lee Arthur Smith, 23-year-old relief pitcher of the Chicago Cubs, the timing could not have been worse.

It wasn't so much the reality that this could be his last paycheck for a while so much as it was the size of the paycheck.

Ask Lee Smith what he remembers from the 51-day strike in 1981 and he does not hesitate.

"I was broke," he said. "I remember that."

And he remembers why he was broke.

"I had borrowed money from the team to pay for my apartment, first and last month's rent and all that," Smith said. "When I went out on strike they took the money out of my last check and all I had left was about $85. I didn't know how I was going to get home."

He found a way home, where he would go to work to make ends meet until the strike ended.

"I got in my '76 Cutlass with my wife and drove home [to Castor, La.]," Smith said. "I'll never forget that car."

And he'll never forget what he did during the strike.

"I ended up driving a dump truck for the city until the strike was over and I played first base for a softball team," Smith said. "Got paid 30 bucks a game and I must have cost them more than that in beer each game."

Smith and teammates Lonnie Smith and Harold Baines are in a group of 22 active major-league players who participated in the 1981 strike. Twenty of the 22 are American Leaguers.

Smith is both baseball's all-time saves leader and 1994's saves leader. In a sense, this impending strike, set for Friday, comes at an appropriate time. It comes with Smith leading baseball in saves and with a portion of that baseball world beginning to wonder, yet again, if he's washed up.

Regardless, Lee Smith will survive the strike to close again in the major leagues. Baines, who survives knee pain daily, will survive the strike as well.

If someone were to attempt to make a case for Lonnie Smith being washed up, the case immediately would be thrown out of court for lack of evidence.

Lonnie Smith lives on the end of Johnny Oates' bench, which is no way to live for a player who has been a contributor all of his career. He has batted all of 52 times. The beginning of the strike could mean the end of his career, one in which he has played in five World Series for four different teams.

"It's not like that would be a whole lot different from what I'm doing now anyway," he said of retirement.

For Lonnie Smith, the timing of the 1981 strike was better than for Lee Smith.

"I went home and got to be there when my daughter was born," said Smith, an outfielder for the Philadelphia Phillies at the time. "I was making $125,000, and I missed out on a lot of that, but it wasn't like I needed to get a job. I enjoyed having a couple of months off with my family. My wife was in the hospital for a week or so, and I took care of my 15-month-old son. I enjoyed that."

When the strike hits, Baines will return home, just as he did in 1981 when he was with the Chicago White Sox. He won't have as far to go this time, as he lives in the Eastern Shore town of St. Michael's.

He didn't work out during that strike, but he plans to during this one.

"I was 22 years old then," Baines said. "I didn't have to work out then."

Baines grows more expansive than usual when the topic turns to a players strike. His years in the game have taught him the importance of backing the union.

"It's not about losing money," Baines said of the strike. "Somebody did it for me, so why shouldn't I do it for them?

"This is not a time to be selfish. This union is as strong as it's ever been. We were taught well and we've been compensated for that."

Baines' years in the game tell him the "if" in "if there is a strike" should be removed.

"Oh, there's going to be one," he said. "There always is. Nothing ever gets done until they force us to do something."

Now that it's been established there is going to be a strike, how long is it going to last?

"I would say we'll be out on strike a minimum of two weeks," Lee Smith said.

Why two weeks?

"When you ask Don Fehr a question that's how long it takes him to give the answer," Lee Smith said with a smile. "He tends to go into a little too much detail for me. When I need to know something, I'll ask our player reps or talk to Mark Belanger or Tony Bernazard."

Even they can't answer the question everyone wants answered: Will there be postseason baseball in 1994?


In addition to the Orioles' Lee Smith, Harold Baines and Lonnie Smith, the following active players were also in the majors during the 1981 strike:

Andre Dawson

Dave Stewart

Dennis Martinez

Jack Morris

Eddie Murray

Bill Gullickson

Kirk Gibson

Alan Trammel

Lou Whitaker

Dave Winfield

Dennis Eckersley

Tim Raines

Rickey Henderson

Bob Welch

Tim Leary

Rick Honeycutt

Paul Molitor

Larry Andersen

Ozzie Smith

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