I remember Lee Smith from his early days in Cubbie Blue, how he would saunter in the from the left field bullpen and arrive on the mound with his blazing fast ball to mow down opposing team hitters. I’m sure you remember the menacing figure of Smitty’s 6’5 frame on the mound in Busch Stadium doing the same thing. Of his 478 career saves, 160 of them came with the Cardinals. I had the opportunity to talk with Smith last night in Jefferson City when he was at an autograph signing. If I wouldn’t have been pushed along by his agent and organizers of the event, I could have talked to Smith for 30 minutes…he brings his words like he brought his fastball…fast and furious.
Smith who now works as a pitching instructor in the San Francisco Giants organization, talks about how much he enjoyed his time in St. Louis. Smith took the same route of another former Cubs’ closer before him in Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter. Both having good careers in Chicago before winding up in St. Louis. However, Smith wasn’t ready to take the reins as a closer with the Cubs. As most pitchers in his day, he wanted to be a starter and when things didn’t work out well in his starting role, he was asked to move to the bullpen. Instead, Smith moved to basketball. He was playing college basketball when he was paid a visit by Cubs’ Hall of Famer Billy Williams who said the right things (some not printable according to Smith), and convinced Smith to come back and pitch for the Cubs.
In Smith’s day, the closer role was much different than it is today. Guys like Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera come in a pitch the ninth inning and they are done. Many times, Smith would get more than three outs for a save coming on in the 8th inning to stop a rally and then close the door in the 9th. Other times, he would pitch in the 7th of a tied game.
Smith never made a postseason appearance with the Cardinals, but in 1984 he was apart of the Chicago Cubs first playoff series since 1945. The home run Smith allowed to Steve Garvey, forced a fifth and final game in San Diego in which the Padres eventually won to go to the World Series. Then after leaving the Cubs, Smith pitched two years with Boston, before coming to the Cardinals. In 1988, Smith took another loss when he allowed the Oakland A’s to score a run in the 9th inning of game two of their ALCS series. Smith finished his career with an 0-2 postseason record. By the way, on that 1998 A’s team…Mark McGwire and manager Tony LaRussa.
Smith was scouted by Negro League’s star and former Kansas City Monarch Buck O’Neil. Smith has fond memories of O’Neil recalling his positive attitude and great memory. So when you hear Smith talk about O’Neil you understand why Smith himself is not bitter over the fact that he has not been elected to Baseball’s Hall of Fame.