He's Saving Good Times for Close of His Career

Lee Smith came to bat, oh, must have been 13 summers ago, one day against Atlanta. He recalls a couple of things about that game.

"I was starting," for one.

Although his memory is good, remembering a baseball game that he started does not require any real genius on Lee's part. In 15 years in the major leagues, he has started exactly six.

"Phil Niekro was pitching for them," Smith says, kicking back in front of his locker at Anaheim Stadium. "Throwing those knuckleballs of his. And I got ahold of one."

For your only home run.

"Yeah, and I stopped at second base."

You what?

"I lost track of the ball. I thought it hit up top, by the basket. Frank Pulli's umpiring second base, and he has to come over to me and say, 'No, you got one, big guy. Finish the trip.' "

Lee Smith started one game for the Chicago Cubs in 1981 and five more in 1982. He has never started another.

What he does is finish them.

The man is in his 16th season. As a hitter, he has a total of three hits. As a pitcher, he has a total of 68 victories. As a player, he has never been in a World Series.

Yet when my Hall of Fame ballot comes--around, say, 2002, 2003--I will make my mark beside Lee Smith's name, without a second thought.

Mr. Smith is not a famous man, not yet.

And that's all right with him, because when it comes to self-promotion, Lee feels, "It's just not me."

Which is fine, for as the old Cub outfielder Billy Williams was wont to say, "When fish open their mouths, they get caught."

Fact is, however, that Lee Smith has saved more games--450 and counting--than any pitcher since baseball began recording save statistics. More than Rollie Fingers, more than Bruce Sutter, more than Dennis Eckersley. Heck, he even saved his own career. Signed by the Angels nine days beyond his 37th birthday, he is still throwing heat.

Could be this is the man who can finally get them into a World Series.

Or, better yet, maybe they can finally get him into one.

Who's to say that 1995 is not the year of the overdue? Clyde Drexler finally got his NBA championship ring. Steve Young finally got his NFL championship ring. Jim Harrick finally got his NCAA championship ring. Patient guys keep getting rewarded out there.

"Oh, we're winning now, that's all that counts," Lee Smith says.

Yes, but I'm pulling for you, regardless, big guy. I wish you everything and forgive you everything, even that ninth-inning home run by Steve Garvey off you in Game 4 of the 1984 National League playoffs at San Diego that was of no particular importance except that it, oh, kept the poor Cubs out of the World Series, nothing much.

My own memory is hazy when it comes to Lee Smith. I was living in Chicago when the Cubs drafted him during the Gerald Ford administration, on June 4, 1975. He was a Sears Tower-sized right-hander out of Northwestern Louisiana State, but I can't really recall when his status changed from starter to bullpen ace.

I do know this: 29 saves in his first full season of relief, then 33, then 33, then 31, then 36.

And then the Cubs made one of their typically astute moves, trading Lee Smith on Dec. 8, 1987, for those right-handed immortals, you know 'em, you love 'em, Al Nipper and Calvin Schiraldi.

And the rest is misery.

So here sits Lee Smith, toiling for his sixth big league club, America's least-wanted. Forsaken by the Cubs, Red Sox, Cardinals, Yankees (after eight games) and Orioles, this pitcher who has never been a 10-game winner, let alone a 20, simply keeps traveling on, changing uniforms, saving butts.

He is the reason the Angels have been whiffing the tantalizing aroma of first place. He is why a Halo no longer goes into an eighth inning dreading that there has to be a ninth inning.

OK, so he can't save them all.

He'll save enough.

And maybe, some day, some way, Lee Smith will even get another turn at the plate, where he is currently a struggling three for 64, lifetime.

"But I did have a solid single once, in Pittsburgh, I think . . . " he says.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World