Smith's act is old, but still effective

SIDELIGHT

June 12, 1995|By Brad Snyder | Brad Snyder,Sun Staff Writer

It's all an act.

Lee Smith saunters in from the bullpen, talks about how old he is and jokes that he's fooling everybody into thinking he can still pitch.

But the act works.

It worked 45 years ago for Satchel Paige, an aging Negro League legend who pitched into his 40s with the Cleveland Indians and St. Louis Browns.

And it worked yesterday for Smith.

He got into his usual jam, retired Cal Ripken to get his 450th save and broke the major-league record of current Orioles closer Doug Jones by getting his 16th consecutive save.

The modern-day Paige downplayed his accomplishments with a mixture of humility and wit.

"I was one team away from being a Homestead homey," said Smith, referring to the union-organized free-agent camp in Florida after the strike.

The Angels signed the 37-year-old Smith to a two-year deal because they believed he still could pitch. His return to Baltimore proved he still can, with the all-time saves leader picking up his major-league-leading 16th save.

The way Smith talks, you would think he's through.

"My b.s. slider I keep throwing up to the plate, I keep fooling 'em," Smith said. "Especially for an old dude who's been washed up for about eight years, it's a great feeling to go out and still be playing against guys who were in the third grade when I started in the big leagues."

The way he walks in from the bullpen, you would think he's ancient.

With the fans cheering one of their former favorites, Smith took 1 minute, 44 seconds to get to the pitcher's mound.

Smith plays at his own pace.

He walked Harold Baines, who pinch hit for Bret Barberie. Curtis Goodwin, a third-grader when Smith made his 1980 debut, bunted pinch runner Brady Anderson to second. Anderson advanced to third on Kevin Bass' groundout.

That brought up Rafael Palmeiro and behind him, Cal Ripken. After a conference at the mound, Smith chose to walk the left-handed-hitting Palmeiro and pitch to the right-handed Ripken.

"I said, 'I ain't afraid of [Palmeiro], but I'll take my chances with Rip,' " said Smith, whom left-handers hit for a .306 average last year as opposed to .171 for right-handers. "Ain't neither one of them's easy."

It was former teammate against former teammate, future Hall of Famer against future Hall of Famer.

The two men go way back. Ripken had faced Smith in Puerto Rico in 1979 when they were minor-league prospects. Beneath their long history lies mutual respect.

"He doesn't have all those saves for nothing," Ripken said. "It's always a battle when you face Lee."

When Ripken stepped to the plate, Smith said he had to step off the mound to compose himself: "It's like going out there and pitching against your brother or somebody you idolize. I'm older than him so. . . ."

Age won.

Ripken worked Smith to a full count by fouling off several of Smith's sliders that tailed away. Finally, Smith threw one that turned back toward the plate. Ripken smacked it to center field, but directly at Jim Edmonds, who had changed his positioning before the pitch. He caught Ripken's drive to end the game.

Jeffrey Hammonds, who Smith used to call Baby Frank (Robinson), was waiting on deck. Hammonds said he was looking forward to facing Smith.

Smith said he saw Hammonds standing there: "Baby Frank almost had to come out of the crib."

The nonstop shortstop said he did his level best.

"I think in that situation you'd try to always hit the ball hard," said Ripken, who guarded the outside part of the plate. "I'm protecting against his area of strength."

Smith chalked up his 16th save to good fortune. "It ran in on him a little bit," he said of the last pitch. "I guess sometimes it's better to be lucky than good."

The act still works.

Paige used it for years. He had an old man routine that included six rules for staying young, pitched in the majors until his mid-to-late 40s and later joined the Hall of Fame.

Smith said he'll pitch as long as he still can close out games. If he keeps on pitching into his 40s, the comparisons to Paige are just beginning.

"I think I'm about 200 pounds heavier than Satchel," the 6-foot-6, 269-pound Smith said of the slender 6-3 Paige. "Maybe it's coming from the old school."

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