Lee Smith Proves He Isn't Finished 27 Teams Had Given Up on Game's Top Reliever

Article excerpt

Earl Weaver, a legend in his time as manager of the Baltimore Orioles, wrote a book, "It's What You Learn After You Know It All That Really Counts."

Weaver must be pleased to see his philosophy alive and well, nurtured by Baltimore relief pitcher Lee Smith.

Smith, supposedly washed up at 36, is one of the best stories of the early season. This big man (6-6, 269) is again baseball's dominant closer. He leads the majors with 17 saves and an earned run average of 0.57.

And what's even better, he's doing it the old-fashioned way, using tricks and schemes acquired in 13 years in the big leagues.

"Back when I first came up, it was fun to throw the ball 95 (mph) down the middle and challenge guys and if they hit it, fine," Smith says. "But obviously, I'm not that way anymore. And you do learn a few things along the way. What I have now is the confidence to throw all my pitches. That's been the biggest key."

Smith has had impeccable control with the mix of fastballs, sliders and forkballs. Another plus is that nasty sidearm delivery he saves for key moments.

"I used to throw everything sidearm when I came up with the Cubs (1980-81) but they pretty much told me to scrap it. And when you're that young, you pretty much do what you're told.

"But since I came here, (Orioles pitching coach Dick) Bosman has encouraged me to use it more. He even wants me to drop down on near every righty that shows up. I told him that would be too much."

Smith's turnaround is just short of remarkable. In mid-January, he was about ready to give in to retirement. But the Orioles came calling, with a little something in their hands - $1.5 million plus incentives on a one-year contract.

"Back then, all I could really think about was fishing - I was darn near doing just that from then on. I didn't have a whole lot of choices. Cleveland was the only team I had contact with, and that was a non-guaranteed deal. And the only reason I ended up here was Gregg (Olson) was hurt."

Baltimore brass has been deeply thankful Smith came to the rescue.

"Lee has been remarkable from the start of the season," said general manager Roland Hemond. "It's hard to say where we would be without him."

Orioles manager Johnny Oates, a former catcher, the Cubs' bullpen coach part of the time Smith was in Chicago, certainly appreciates the veteran righthander's savvy. …