Lee Smith, RP, #48 (1988-1990)
139 G, 12-7, 58 SV, 3.04 ERA
Lee Arthur Smith (born December 4, 1957). An imposing and intimidating figure at 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds with a 95-mph fastball, Lee Smith retired as the career leader in saves with 478, a record that stood until last year when it was surpassed by current San Diego Padres relief pitcher Trevor Hoffman. Smith was voted “Fireman of the Year” three times and paced his league in saves four times over his 18 season career with eight teams. The right-hander strung together 12 straight seasons of 25 or more saves, a record that reflected his durability and performance. When he retired, he not only stood alone as the all-time saves leader but also ranked first in games finished (802) and third in appearances (1022). However, some say his team-jumping (he was traded four times and left teams four times as a free agent) and his lack of post-season success have hurt his Hall of Fame chances.
Lee Smith started his career in the days of two-inning closers and later helped usher in the one-batter closer that became en vogue in the 1990s. Smith originally resisted the move to the bullpen. “When [Double-A Manager] Randy Hundley tried to make me a reliever,’’ Smith told the San Jose Mercury-News in 2000, “I took it to mean that I was not good enough to start.’’ For a brief period he quit baseball to play basketball at Northwestern Louisiana State until a visit from Cubs great Billy Williams convinced him to return to the mound. From 1983-1985, when he was with the Cubs, Smith averaged 6.2 batters faced per game pitched. From 1991-1993 he averaged 4.1 per game. By contrast, Dennis Eckersley averaged 4.7 per game in his nine years with Oakland.
Notorious for his slow gait coming in from the bullpen, Smith shared closing duties with future AL MVP Willie Hernandez in 1982 (inheriting the job from Dick Tidrow) and led the NL in saves for the first time for the Cubs in 1983. Smith then strung together four straight seasons with 30 or more saves. At the time, Dan Quisenberry had been the only other pitcher to accomplish that feat.
In 1984 while the Cubs finished with the franchise’s best record since World War II, Smith compiled his worst ERA of the decade — although he saved more than 30 games for the first time in his career. In Game 2 of the 1984 NLCS, Smith recorded two outs for the save to put Chicago up 2-0 in the best-of-5 series against San Diego. The Padres easily won Game 3 but Game 4 was tied when Smith started the 8th inning. After a scoreless 8th and a strikeout to start the bottom of the 9th, Smith allowed a single to Tony Gwynn. Steve Garvey followed with a two-run homer to force Game 5. The Cubs led that game in the 7th inning but Smith watched from the bench as the underdog Padres scored four runs and won a trip to the 1984 World Series. The Cubs have still not been to a World Series since 1945 and have not won one since 1908.
Smith saved more than 30 games while the Cubs had a losing record in 1985, 1986 and 1987. In 1987, Smith was on pace for his first 40-save season. Although finishing short of 40, he was chosen for his second All-Star Game. When the midsummer classic went past the 9th, Smith pitched the 10th, 11th and 12th innings, striking out four and getting credit for the win when the National League scored the only two runs of the game in the 13th. This strong showing in the All-Star game and the high number of saves he recorded that season did not help dispell the rumors that his bulk was beginning to affect his knees. The Cubs’ all-time saves leader was traded to the Red Sox for Calvin Schiraldi and Al Nipper in the off-season.
After losing the 1986 World Series to the Mets in shocking fashion, the Red Sox finished the following season with a team record below .500. One of the main problems was a bullpen full of pitchers with high ERAs. Smith was brought in to help rectify this situation.
Smith did not start his career with the Red Sox in an endearing fashion, giving up a game-winning home run in his 1988 opening day Fenway Park debut. However, he recovered enough to post his best ERA in five years, recording 29 saves and 96 strikeouts for the season. This was enough to help the Red Sox get into post season play.
In Game 2 of the 1988 ALCS against Oakland, Smith came into a crucial tie game but gave up three singles in the 9th inning capped off by Walt Weiss’ game-winner. The loss put Boston in an 0-2 series deficit going to Oakland. After Boston lost Game 3, Smith was put in to prevent Oakland from increasing a 2-1 A’s lead in Game 4. Instead, he gave up two insurance runs and Oakland finished off the four-game sweep.
At the beginning of the 1990 season Boston traded Smith to the St. Louis Cardinals for outfielder Tom Brunansky. He returned to his dominant self with the Cardinals, recording a miniscule ERA of 2.06 in 1990 and then reeling off three straight 40-plus save seasons.
On September 28th of 1991, he picked up save number 45 to tie Bruce Sutter’s National League record from 1984 (coincidentally, when Sutter and Smith reached 45 saves in their respective seasons, both were ex-Cubs pitching for St. Louis against the Cubs). Smith claimed the league record for himself three days later and finished the season with a career-high 47 saves. One difference for him in 1991 was walks as he surrendered only 1.60 walks per nine innings, by far the best in his career to that point. Smith won his first “Rolaids Relief Award”, received the most significant consideration for league MVP in his career, and finished second in Cy Young Award voting behind Tom Glavine who had a breakout season that year.
In 1992, Smith’s former teammate, Jeff Reardon, broke the career saves record held for over a decade by Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers. However, Smith was registering saves at a faster pace than Reardon and by the end of 1992, he was not far behind him. Just two weeks into the 1993 season, Smith passed Reardon with career save number 358. At age 37, Reardon was slowing down and Smith was well in front of him when Reardon retired in 1994. The day after setting the career major league record, he saved his 301st National League game to break that record as well. Smith had 15 saves in June 1993, the most ever in one month for a pitcher, until he was tied by John Wetteland in June 1996 and Chad Cordero in June 2005.
On August 31, 1993, the Cardinals traded Smith to the Yankees for a career minor leaguer. Smith left the team as their all-time save leader until Jason Isringhausen passed him on June 13, 2006.
Towards the end of the 1993 season, Smith was dealt to the Yankees for pitcher Rich Batchelor. Smith made eight appearances with the Yankees and recorded 3 saves. He filed for free agency in October and signed a one-year deal with the Baltimore Orioles in January 1994. He continued to master opposing batters, saving 33 games with the Orioles before filing again for free agency at the end of the year. Smith signed with the California Angels for 1995 and nailed down 37 saves in what would be his last productive year.
While Smith had started 1994 in fantastic fashion at age 36, he started 1995 even better at age 37. He registered a save in every appearance from April 28 through all of May and into June. On June 11, he saved his 16th consecutive game to break the major league record set by Doug Jones in 1988. He ran his streak to 19 games before finally blowing a save on June 28 (John Wetteland broke the record the next year by saving 24 straight). After keeping his ERA at 0.00 through the first two months of the season, he was selected to his seventh and last All-Star Game, thereby becoming only the fourth player to be an All-Star for four different teams.
At the opening of the 1996 season Smith was traded to the Cincinnati Reds where he was primarily used as a setup man. Adjusting to this unfamiliar role led to a shaky season. In ’97 he inked a deal with the Expos, but by July it became obvious that age had finally taken its toll. After announcing his retirement on July 15, 1997 at the age of 39, Smith refused to answer questions from the media.
In 1998, Smith was invited to spring training by the Royals as a non-roster player, but was released when he refused to start the season for their Triple-A affiliate. Smith signed a minor league deal with the Houston Astros later that year but soon retired again. Within three years he was back in baseball as a coach in the Giants’ organization.
Two years after his retirement in 1998, Smith went to work as a roving minor league pitching instructor for the San Francisco Giants. In the 2006 World Baseball Classic, Smith served as the pitching coach of the South Africa national baseball team which was given 20,000 to 1 odds of winning the tournament. That summer Smith also participated as a coach in the second annual European Baseball Academy for Major League Baseball International in Tirrenia, Italy.
There has been much speculation about Lee Smith’s chances of becoming a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame as well as the criteria for relief pitchers and closers in general. Baseball’s second all-time saves leader with 478, Lee Smith’s saves total is so impressive that John Franco, who is third all-time, is more than 50 saves behind him.
However, Smith has come up short of receiving the necessary number of votes to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame twice, but many feel it’s only a matter of time.
“I’ve been on the ballot a few years and I think my chances are looking pretty good,” said Smith about getting into Cooperstown. “I think the best thing for all of us relief pitchers was seeing Dennis Eckersley go in as a relief pitcher. Hopefully that will filter down and help out the guys like myself, Goose (Gossage), and Bruce Sutter.”
As of this writing, only Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers, Dennis Eckersley and Bruce Sutter have been inducted into the Hall of Fame based primarily on their relief pitching and only Sutter has been inducted with fewer starting appearances than Smith. Let’s hope that Lee Smith makes it number 5 very soon.
Player biography written by Karen
Friday, February 9, 2007
Lee Smith, RP, #48 (1988-1990)