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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Closing time Smith specialty but Hall of Fame shut to him

Monday, August 27, 2012

(Photo)
One-time baseball saves leader Lee Smith returns a signed baseball to fan Angie Dyer during his autograph session on the courthouse square Saturday evening as part of the Greencastle Music Festival event.
Lee Smith is a bear of a man and a legend of a Cub.

On Saturday, the 6-6, 265-pound Smith was a special guest at the Greencastle Music Festival, appearing at the Swizzle Stick earlier in the day to have lunch with the DePauw University baseball team and on the square later to sign autographs.

The 54-year-old Smith, who once held the major league baseball career saves record for 13 years (until 2006) after his retirement with 478, shared stories about his 18-year MLB career.

"Your career goes by so fast," Smith said.

"The main thing is for you to remember where you come from and who you're representing," he said. "You're not only playing for yourself, you're representing your school and your family and your friends."

Probably best remembered as the closer on the Chicago Cub teams of the 1980s, Smith met Almost Home/Swizzle Stick owner Gail Smith during one of her visits to the annual Cubs' Convention and his Saturday appearance in Greencastle was sponsored by Headley Hardware.

While Smith was once baseball's career saves leader, he hasn't even come close to the ultimate reward of election to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

Asked what was wrong with Hall of Fame voters, he responded politely but sternly, "If you find out, let me know."

Besides his impressive saves numbers, Smith stands third all-time in appearances with 1,022 games pitched and holds the record for games finished at 802.

Smith has been on the Hall of Fame ballot nine times, receiving at most 47 percent of the vote (75 percent is required for election).

"I guess they think the relief pitching thing is easy," Smith said of the baseball writers who vote on Hall of Fame selection. "I don't like to compare stats, but you can look at the numbers."

While today's closers often enter the game to start the ninth inning and record a three-out save, Smith pitched in an era in which he often pitched more than an inning. In fact, he even pitched three innings in an All-Star Game, getting the win when the National League won in extras.

"It was harder to close back then," he said. "I actually pitched in tight games. I pitched in games where we were losing in the seventh inning (but Cubs' coaches wanted to keep the game close with a chance to win at the end).

"And I would love to know why (then-Cub manager) Jim Frey thought I could only pitch with a guy on second base and a one-run lead."

It was also Frey who traded Smith from Chicago to the Boston Red Sox after the 1987 season in one of the worst deals in Cubs' history. He received the never-popular Al Nipper and Calvin Schiraldi in exchange for Smith, who would go on to record nearly 300 more saves after being traded by the Cubs.

When Smith later returned to Wrigley Field as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals, he saved three games in a four-game series and can still hear the disgust in Cub announcer Harry Caray's voice ringing in this ears.

"Harry said they 'traded a Clydesdale and got two Shetland ponies,'" Smith smiled. "I liked that."

(Photo)
Former Chicago Cub and St. Louis Cardinal relief pitching star Lee Smith speaks to members of the DePauw University baseball team Saturday at the Swizzle Stick on the square before the Greencastle Music Festival.
To this day Smith remains the career saves leader for the Cubs with 180 and also posted 160 for St. Louis, saving 47 and 43 games in a season for the Cardinals before closing his MLB career with stints as a Yankee, Oriole, Angel, Red and Expo.

Currently he has been a roving pitching coach for the San Francisco Giants the past 13 years, but seeing him in a Giant cap Saturday was a little disconcerting.

"I had to have something to keep the sun out of my eyes," he explained as mostly Cubs' and Cardinals' fans filed past for autographs.

Smith remains a Cub legend and favorite as part of the 1984 team that was one win away from bringing a World Series to the North Side of Chicago for the first time since 1945.

He was on the mound in game four of that series with San Diego, which the Cubs led two games to none when they left Wrigley Field. Steve Garvey hit a walk-off homer off Smith that night, undoubtedly the reliever's least-favorite moment on the diamond as highlights of Garvey pumping his popeye arms in celebration while rounding the bases still get airtime to this day.

"We were pretty comfortable with that lead," Smith said of the Cubs leaving Chicago up 2-0 and needing one win to move on to face the Yankees.

"What people forget is that last game was supposed to be at Wrigley," Smith noted.

But because Wrigley still had no lights (not until August 1988), and baseball wanted prime-time TV exposure, the deciding fifth game stayed in San Diego.

The Cubs led in the seventh inning but lost on a Padre rally off pitcher Rick Sutcliffe.

"That home-field advantage would have meant a lot to us," Smith said. "You look at those two teams, and we had the better ballclub, I don't think there's any question. But in baseball, sometimes those things just don't work out."



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