During the last week of spring training, an American League general manager watched from a distance as the Orioles worked out before an exhibition game. "Who is that?" he asked, when he caught a glimpse of one lumbering Baltimore pitcher. "That's the worst-looking baseball player I've ever seen." When it turned out that the player in question was closer Lee Smith, the G.M. said, "How could the Orioles have signed him?"
He wasn't the only general manager who asked that question. It didn't matter that Smith had saved 46 games in 1993, running his career record total to 401. He was 37 years old, he was carrying 270 pounds on his 6'6" frame, and his fastball was no longer overpowering. All that is still true, but in this year of fallen closers—Rod Beck, Rob Dibble, Bryan Harvey, Duane Ward and John Wetteland have all spent time on the disabled list—Smith has been the game's best stopper, saving 12 games in 12 tries without allowing a run in 10? innings through Sunday. He had a save in 12 of his team's first 23 games, a feat no other pitcher has accomplished. Suddenly the one-year, $1.5 million deal that the Orioles gave Smith in January looks like a bargain, one the Yankees (Smith's previous employer) and a few other teams probably wish they had anted up for.
Smith resents the fact that baseball executives thought he was over the hill, but he says he's used to it, "it wasn't just last year; it's been the last five or six years," he says. "Teams told my agent [Jim Bronner] I was throwing only 83, 84 miles an hour last year. Once those reports come out, you get a reputation. It was like 46 saves didn't matter."
Scouts still say that Smith isn't throwing much harder than 85 mph, but he insists. "I'm getting it there quicker than that. And, anyway, it's not how hard you throw it, it's where you throw it." And sure enough, Smith's control has been outstanding. He refuses to deliver the ball near the center of the plate, yet Smith had allowed only one walk while striking out nine at week's end. "He's always had great control of the outside corner," says Oriole shortstop Cal Ripken, who has faced Smith in spring training for years.
Smith also has presence, a quality that cannot be overestimated in a closer. When he walks in from the bullpen, "people look at him and think it's over," says Baltimore manager John Oates. Smith gives them plenty of time to think, too. Oriole broadcasters have timed his leisurely stroll to the mound at around one minute. "He wants the game played at his pace." says Oriole reliever Mark Williamson. "He's in no rush. That's the way he lives his life. Not much bothers that man."
One thing that does bother him is when he isn't paid the respect he thinks he deserves. Says Smith, "Even if I have a great year, next winter they'll say, 'Who wants to take a chance on Lee Smith? He's 37 years old." I'll see the same old stuff again."
Hubbub on the Cubs
The Cubs did not win a home game in April—they went 0-9 in the unfriendly confines of Wrigley Field—and began May by losing at home on Sunday, too. Following a 6-5 defeat at the hands of the Rockies last Friday, Chicago manager Tom Trebelhorn got an earful from Cub fans when he participated in an impromptu question-and-answer session at a fire station near Wrigley. In demanding reasons for the slow start by the Cubs, who were 6-16 at week's end and 8�: games out of first place in the National League's Central Division, some of the questioners were abusive to Trebelhorn. He handled them with good humor, telling one to "go have another beer."
Chicago's bumbling beginning was probably more attributable to its faulty pitching staff than to anything done by Trebelhorn, who's in his first year as Cub manager. The rotation is built around three starters—Mike Morgan, Willie Banks and Anthony Young—who all have losing career records (they were a combined 116-186 lifetime through Sunday).