Lee Smith is a laid-back sort of guy. Back in the day, in fact, he had a reputation for napping in the clubhouse through the early innings of ball games before heading out to the bullpen. "Ah, that was overrated," Smith says. "When I was with the Cardinals, you couldn't afford to nap. Tom Pagnozzi (a teammate) used to set fire to your shoelaces if you did."
Lee Smith is a laid-back sort of guy. Back in the day, in fact, he had a reputation for napping in the clubhouse through the early innings of ball games before heading out to the bullpen.
"Ah, that was overrated," Smith says. "When I was with the Cardinals, you couldn't afford to nap. Tom Pagnozzi (a teammate) used to set fire to your shoelaces if you did."
Besides, Smith adds, with justifiable pride in his voice, "You don't sleep too much and go 18 years in the big leagues."
No, you don't. There was nothing sleepy about Smith's fastball during a career with the Cubs, Red Sox, Cardinals, Yankees, Orioles, Angels, Reds and Expos. For a long time, that heater was 'plus' stuff, which made Smith one of baseball's premier closers and still puts him in the middle of strong consideration for the Hall of Fame.
Now 51, Smith will bring what's left of that fastball, along with his ample personality, to Peoria on June 20 for the seventh annual Legend at the Ballpark event, proceeds from which go to benefit the local Rehabilitation Foundation of the Institute of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.
To participate, Smith will take a break from his regular job as roving minor-league pitching coordinator for the San Francisco Giants.
"You know," he says, "when I was playing ball, me and Shawon Dunston and all the guys would sit around and talk about what we wanted to do when we got done playing. Ed Lynch would say he wanted to be a general manager, and he became one. I always said, ‘After I'm done, you'll never see me again. I'm goin' fishin'.' Shawon, too.
"But after you're out a while, the walls start to close in. I can't say I missed playing, but I missed the game. I missed my buddies. Missed going places. So now what? I'm doing this, and Shawon's an instructor with the Giants, too."
The day after his appearance here, Smith heads to Cooperstown, N.Y., to join two dozen other former stars in the inaugural Hall of Fame Classic. Truth be told, he would like to be among the five participants who have been enshrined in the Hall. Instead, he's waiting; a bona fide former star — but maybe one who didn't shine quite bright enough.
Smith retired in 1997 as the game's all-time leader in saves, with 478. He currently ranks third, having been passed by Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera, who are still active. No pitcher finished more games than Smith's 802. It has been suggested that his career ERA of 3.03 is a tad high for a closer, and by today's standards it is.
But Smith broke into the bigs when relievers were expected to be workhorses. Three-inning saves were not uncommon. 'I pitched over five innings a few times,' he says. 'You go out that many innings at a time, and opposing batters have another chance to get to you.' By the time he retired, closers were working one inning or less, sometimes even pitching to only a single batter.
Still, Smith succeeded throughout the evolution of his position, leading the National League in saves his fourth, 12th and 13th seasons, and the American League in his 15th.
Since becoming eligible for the Hall of Fame, Smith has slowly gathered support among voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America. He finished fifth each of the past two years, but so far has failed to gain the 75 percent support required for induction. He'll remain on the ballot for eight more years unless he wins a spot before that time is up.
"I'm not bitter," Smith says. "I played the best I could. I look at Bruce Sutter and Goose Gossage (both in the Hall). I thought my stats were as good as those guys. But I've quit trying to figure it out."
So he no longer waits by the phone in January, when the votes are tallied and announced. He figures Hall of Fame reps and sports reporters will find him easily enough if the news warrants.
Eras are different. Smith knows that. But the game remains mostly the same, with its sights, sounds and smells, the cadence of daily routine, the travel and the people who make baseball their lives. He loves being part of it.
He no longer naps in the clubhouse, though.
"Can't do it," Smith says, laughing. "The kids are watching me now."
Kirk Wessler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (309) 686-3216.