Smith’s big dose of doz­ing

Nap­ping through early in­nings helped pre­pare Cubs closer for the job

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - CHICAGO SPORTS - Paul Sul­li­van

COOP­ER­STOWN, N.Y. — Former Cubs closer Lee Smith was asked dur­ing a Hall of Fame press brief­ing Satur­day what he would say to a man­ager if asked to be an “opener” for an in­ning or two.

“It wouldn’t work,” Smith replied. “Be­cause I was sleep­ing.”

A lit­tle later at a sep­a­rate brief­ing, Harold Baines was asked what Smith was like as a team­mate with the Ori­oles.

“When he wasn’t sleep­ing?” Baines said with a grin.

Smith was one of the great­est closers in base­ball his­tory, record­ing 478 saves over 18 sea­sons and, like Baines, get­ting into the Hall through the Veter­ans Com­mit­tee vote. He’ll join Yan­kees great Mar­i­ano Rivera, the all-time saves leader, on stage Sun­day in a his­toric day for closers.

But one thing some fans don’t know about “Big Lee” is he also was con­sid­ered per­haps the great­est nap­per in base­ball his­tory, an un­of­fi­cial des­ig­na­tion Smith was only too happy to dis­cuss on the eve of his in­duc­tion.

“Man, there was noth­ing like wak­ing up with a three-run lead, dude,” he said.

Smith, who dom­i­nated the late in­nings for years with his size and power arm, in­sisted he could nap any­where, in­clud­ing the club­house floor at County Sta­dium in Mil­wau­kee.

“I could ac­tu­ally sleep right in the mid­dle of the floor, and guys would step over me,” he said. “It was like, ‘Man, how do you do it?’ I was like, ‘Throw a towel over my face and I’m out, man.’

“The trainer’s job was to make sure I was up in the sixth in­ning. I was al­ways able to re­lax, and I think that helped out (my ca­reer) a lot.”

So why don’t more play­ers take naps dur­ing games?

“Let me tell you what ‘Smitty’ started,” he said. “They’ve got a room in (the Cubs club­house), it’s like the ‘quiet room.’ They’ve got beds and they’re, like, mon­i­tor­ing th­ese guys’ sleep. I’m like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. You’ve got to put my name on that door.’ It’s amaz­ing how many or­ga­ni­za­tions have got that now, a room where you’re able to re­lax.

“Back in the day, the club­houses weren’t big enough to have a place, es­pe­cially for a man my size (6-foot-6 and listed be­tween 220 and 265 pounds), to get com­fort­able. But now it’s a given. … We’ve got a trainer that mon­i­tors a guy’s sleep and how many hours of sleep they get a week. I don’t have to go to that meet­ing be­cause I had that un­der con­trol.”

Smith grew up in the small town of Cas­tor, La., and played for eight teams. The first eight sea­sons were with the Cubs, and he was one of the main rea­sons they snapped a 39-year post­sea­son drought in 1984.

“The thing with the Chicago Cubs,” he said, “if I give up that home run in the eighth or ninth in­ning and the game is over by about 4 (p.m.), I’d see it at home about six times be­fore 10.”

The Cubs traded Smith to the Red Sox in 1987 in a lop­sided deal that brought back medi­ocre pitch­ers Calvin Schi­raldi and Al Nip­per. He then wound up in St. Louis, where he had his best year in 1991 with a league-lead­ing 47 saves.

Smith said Car­di­nals fans were “spoiled from win­ning, and that’s a good thing to be around,” and he re­called start­ing pitcher Joe Ma­grane get­ting a stand­ing ova­tion af­ter cough­ing up a lead on some fluke hits.

“I’m like, I just came from Chicago and Bos­ton,” he said. “They’d have been key­ing your car out­side.”

Smith was re­jected on the writ­ers’ bal­lot dur­ing his 15 years of el­i­gi­bil­ity— his high­est per­cent­age of votes was 50.6% in 2012, his 10th year — and he won­dered why it took so long for him to get to Coop­er­stown. But he now feels like “all the hard work paid off.”

When he came up to the ma­jors, Smith noted the re­liev­ers were the ones deemed “not good enough to start” and “usu­ally didn’t get to pitch un­til the starter got his butt kicked.” Times have changed. “Now the game evolved where it’s a six-in­ning game,” he said, re­fer­ring to starters’ pitch counts and dom­i­nant bullpens. Smith still doesn’t be­lieve that just any re­liever can close, say­ing “you’ve got to be a lit­tle off.”

It may be Rivera’s show Sun­day with thou­sands of Yan­kees fans mak­ing the trip to Coop­er­stown, but look for Smith to get the most laughs of the in­ductees.

While Smith was talking up a storm Satur­day, Baines might have set a per­sonal record for his long­est in­ter­view, talking for about a half-hour and seem­ingly en­joy­ing him­self.

What was the old record? “A cou­ple min­utes,” he said. So how long will Sun­day’s speech be?

“Don’t go to the bath­room,” he warned.

Baines might be the only Hall of Famer whose num­ber was re­tired 12 sea­sons be­fore he did, the White Sox do­ing so with his No. 3 less than a month af­ter trad­ing him to the Rangers in 1989. Asked how that felt, he said he was “still mad that I got traded.”

But he got over it rather quickly and re­turned to the Sox twice as a player and later as a coach, earn­ing a World Se­ries ring with the 2005 champs.

“The older you get, the more you ap­pre­ci­ate what they’ve done for you, and the White Sox have treated me like their son,” he said. “So I’m very grate­ful for ev­ery­thing they’ve done for me.”

Baines played 22 sea­sons, the last 12 on one-year con­tracts be­cause of his bad knees.

“I didn’t have a chance to fail or I’d be out of a job,” he said. “Couldn’t go to the Na­tional League. All I could do is DH.”

Was it dif­fi­cult get­ting only one-year deals?

“Not re­ally,” he said. “Be­cause I knew what I had to do if I had a three-year or a one-year (deal). You’ve still got to go out and per­form.

“I love the game and I never wanted to stop. The only rea­son I stopped was the phone stopped ring­ing. I was for­tu­nate to have the num­bers that some­body felt I could help their team.”

Smith and Baines took the long route to Coop­er­stown, but the great thing about be­ing a Hall of Famer is once you’re in, you’re in.


Cubs closer and Hall of Famer Lee Smith pitches against the Gi­ants dur­ing a game in 1987 at Wrigley Field.


Harold Baines, left, and Lee Smith pose dur­ing a news con­fer­ence for the Base­ball Hall of Fame dur­ing the win­ter meet­ings in De­cem­ber.

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