Intimidation. Consistency. Courage. Heat. He brought it all. And he brought it in the role of closer, what they called a relief ace at the time, a job that actually didn’t exist on a full-time level until he and a handful of his peers came along.
Lee Smith pitched in the Major Leagues from 1980 to 1997. He started only six games. This coming year, he will be inducted into Cooperstown.
Smith was the first in so many ways, and when he closed games (at least for the first two thirds of his career) it wasn’t just a one inning appearance like we see today from relievers. His unprecedented consistency finishing off games out of the bullpen, is why he was added to the 2019 class along with Harold Baines by the Today’s Game Era Committee. No offense to Baines, but Smith should have gone in before this, for his pioneering success.
Here’s a story I did for CNN Sports in 1995 after Smith joined the California Angels. He pitched that full season in Anaheim, then part of the next season before retiring in 1997 with 478 career saves. In it there is Smith’s wisdom for the ages, and a peek into the dedication and focus the big guy had all those years. Also note the sound bite from a young Troy Percival, the closer-in-waiting who credited Smith with teaching him how to do the job.
P-S: Shout out to Daryn Kagan and Bob Lorenz, my old buddies from CNN Sports. And to the Angels’ Tim Mead, the greatest friend any sports guy or gal could have.