As former Cardinals pitcher Lee Smith touches up his Hall of Fame speech in the next few days before Sunday’s induction, his thoughts are with another Cardinals Hall of Fame pitcher who won’t be at Cooperstown, N.Y. That would be Bob Gibson, who has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy in Omaha, Neb.
“My prayers are with him,” said Smith. “I wish he could have been here. He was always a guy I looked up to — guys like him and Nolan Ryan — because I wanted to be a starting pitcher.
“I always looked up to the starting pitchers because that was the stepping stone you put your career up against.
“Of course, I’m not quite as mean as Bob Gibson,” he said, chuckling, “(but) if you know anything about baseball, he had to be one of your heroes.”
In fact, Smith said that if he had just one hero growing up in rural Castor, La., it was Gibson, as the latter was whip-sawing through National League hitters.
“My grandfather loved the St. Louis Cardinals, and that was the only thing he could get on (his) little bitty tiny radio,” said Smith. “Bob Gibson and all those guys were his team ... back in the day. So I fell into that wanting to be Bob Gibson, if I had to pick somebody.”
Gibson also appealed to Smith because the latter had basketball as his first love and the former played with the Harlem Globetrotters for a few months.
“After I got into the game, I’ve got to say it would be Fergie Jenkins,” said Smith of his fellow former Chicago Cub.
All three are African-Americans who became outstanding pitchers. But Smith may be the last one, for a long time, who will make it to the Hall of Fame, unless retiring lefthander CC Sabathia of the New York Yankees is deemed worthy — and that wouldn’t happen for at least six years.
There are very few African-American pitchers in the majors today, with Toronto’s Marcus Stroman and Pittsburgh’s Chris Archer among the best.
“I don’t know what it is,” said Smith. “Maybe guys don’t want to pitch and they want to play every day. There hasn’t been a (former Oakland star) Dave Stewart in a long time.”
Smith agreed that football and basketball provide faster options for all-around athletes to reach the majors, but, specifically speaking of baseball, he said that “travel teams” for young baseball players have hurt some black athletes.
“They can’t afford travel ball,” Smith said. “It’s expensive. So I think that with the travel teams, you’re not necessarily going to see the best players. You’re going to see the ones who can afford it more.”
Smith, at 478 career saves, ranks third all-time. He will go into the Hall on Sunday with No. 1 Mariano Rivera (652). No. 2 Trevor Hoffman (601) entered last year, and Smith, as part of his speech, said he plans to talk about the rise of the closer in Hall of Fame esteem.
“A lot of people can’t do it,” Smith said. “I had a lot of setup men who, I thought, had better stuff than me.”
But being the “last man standing,” said Smith, is different because of the urgency of the hitters who bat in the ninth inning.
“They don’t want to be that 27th out,” he said. “I talked to one of the best hitters in the game, Billy Williams, and he explained to me there was no worse feeling for him in all the years he played than being out there while the other team was high-fiving and you made that last out and you’re trying to weave through that team trying to get back to your dugout. ...
“You find so many guys who pitch that seventh and eighth inning and be nasty, but when they closed they failed. There’s something about being that last man standing. It takes a special person.”
But Smith wasn’t always a closer and not even always a reliever. He started six games in 1981 and 1982, including his final one on July 5, 1982, in Atlanta. The game matched two potential Hall of Famers, the Cubs’ Smith and the Braves’ Phil Niekro.
“There ain’t no way I’m going to forget that game,” said Smith. “I hit a home run. Pitchers don’t forget hits.”
But it is not a topic Smith will bring up with Niekro at Cooperstown, he said.
“You don’t ever talk to a pitcher about hitting a home run off him,” Smith said.
Smith, whose record dipped to 1-5 with a 7-5 loss that day, was reluctant to go to the bullpen at first.
“Back in the day, you didn’t want to be a relief pitcher,” he said. “You wanted to get back in that starting rotation and to stay in that starting rotation. Usually, if you weren’t good enough they’d throw you in the bullpen and you didn’t get to pitch until the starter got his butt kicked.”
Smith will go in as a Cub, but he had his best years with the Cardinals. Smith was here from 1990-93 and had three consecutive years of 40-plus saves from 1991-93, including a then club record and major-league high of 47 in 1991.
Smith said the 1991 season, under manager Joe Torre, was his best when he was the league’s best reliever and finished second to Atlanta’s Tom Glavine in the Cy Young Award balloting.
“You don’t find very many closers who get the opportunity to win the Rolaids (relief award) and to be thought of (being) with the best starters,” he said. “That year was probably the best one. I know it was.”
“The fans were unbelievable” in St. Louis, said Smith, who lived in Chesterfield and said he liked the “laid-back” life that was his style.
“We had good teams, but we never went to the playoffs,” he said. Yet, Smith added, the fans were solid in their support.
“I remember a game Joe Magrane lost a lead in the late innings. One ball hit the bag and there was a high chopper and the man got a standing ovation for his efforts,” said Smith. “I said, ‘Dude, I just came from Chicago and Boston. There, they’d been keying your car outside.’”
Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt did the most damage against Smith, homering five times. Smith, known for walking slowly to the mound from the bullpen, often has said, “You ever see anybody running in to face Mike Schmidt?”
But Smith also struck out Schmidt 15 times in 43 at-bats. Smith said the toughest batter he faced was lefthanded pinch-hitter Ron Jones, a bit player with several teams.
Jones was three for four with a double and a home run against Smith, but it seemed like even more. “I could throw my hat up there and he’d get a hit,” Smith said.
“My blessing in disguise was that he was injured a lot. I’ll tell you what. I might not have had an opportunity to get to the Hall of Fame if I had to face Ron Jones for a living — because that man wore me out.”
Ever since he was voted unanimously into the Hall by a veterans’ committee in Las Vegas last December, Smith knew that his life would be different.
“I was talking to (Hall of Famer) Roberto Alomar in Las Vegas and he said, ‘Do you realize what we’ve done? All the guys who have put on the uniform and only a little more than 200 guys have got into the Baseball Hall of Fame?’
“I said, ‘Man, I came from a town that didn’t even have a red light,’” said Smith.
Since he touched down in Cooperstown, Smith has been besieged for autographs. “I didn’t know those three letters (HOF) meant so much,” he said.
“I like this new team.”