A closer’s best weapon isn’t his overpowering fastball or his hard slider, but something more difficult to master. There have been many men that have come to Major League baseball with the ability to light up the radar gun, but weren’t successful in the late-inning role because they lacked that one special ingredient – that most important of all weapons – intimidation. Lee Smith, with his Mount Everest physique, could intimidate a grizzly bear with a lifetime membership to the Guild of the Not-Easily Intimidated.
Originally a second round draft selection by the Cubs in 1975, Smith was initially groomed as a starter but his poor accuracy kept him from climbing the organizational ladder as a long arm. Only when he was switched to relief work did he begin to shine. Lee was called up to the Cubs in 1980 and saw limited action during a season spent predominately in the bushes. He became a regular member of the Cubs bullpen in 1981 but didn’t have his breakout season until 1982. Working in a closer-by-committee situation, Lee saved 17 games in a strong pen that also featured Guillermo Hernandez, Bill Campbell and Dirty Dick Tidrow.
The closer’s role was his in 1983 when he led the NL in saves, making his first All-Star team in the process. Smtih surrendered just 70 hits in 103 innings (Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter averaged a hit coughed up an inning)while posting an amazing ERA of 1.65. He appeared in 66 games but exceeded 100 innings, unlike the one-inning gunslingers that cluster the game today. Lee finished 59 games for the Cubs in 1984 and was second to Sutter in games saved.
An overpowering pitcher, Lee fanned 112 batters in just 98 innings during the 1985 season, making him the only NL closer to average more than a strikeout per inning. His overall worth to the Cubs presented itself tenfold in 1986 when he not only led the Cubs in saves but wins as well. An All-Star for the second time in 1987, Smith finished as the NL’s runner-up in the saves department with 37. Although Lee had proven himself an adept closer (with four straight years of 30 or more saves) the Cubs traded him to Boston in the offseason for pitchers Al Nipper and Calvin Schiraldi – two men with longer arms.
In his first taste of American League play, Lee saved 29 games for the BoSox while fanning 96 batters in 84 innings. He was even more overpowering in ’89, sitting down 96 batters on strikes in just 71 innings of work. Early in the 1990 season, the Red Sox dealt their strikeout artist – Picasso with a fastball – to the Cardinals for heavy-hitting right fielder Tom Brunansky. He would save a combined 31 games during the season but had his finest nail-in-the-coffin seasons the next two years.
With the Redbirds in 1991, Lee had an NL leading 47 saves. Unlike most power pitchers – and unlike himself in the minors – Smith showed great accuracy in ’91, issuing just 13 walks in 73 innings. He liked the top of the leader board so much that he made certain he found his way there agian in 1992, pacing the NL with 43 saves. Traded to the Yankees at the end of the 1993 season, Lee nevertheless had his third straight year of 40 or more saves when he notched a combined 46 saves between the Redbirds and Bronx Bombers.
During the strike shortened 1994 season, Lee, now with the Orioles, led the American League with 33 saves. He joined the Angels as a free agent in ’95 and added another 37 saves to his resume in sunny California. Lee pitched two more seasons split between three teams before ending his career in the Astros chain during the 1998 season. When he retired, Lee was the career record holder for saves but has since been passed on that list by Trevor Hoffman. However, he still holds the record for most games finished – another record that Hoffman looks to break soon.
W 71/L 92/PCT .436/SV 478/G 1,022/IP 1,289/H 1,133/BB 486/SO 1,251/ERA 3.03