Smith’s big dose of dozing
Napping through early innings helped prepare Cubs closer for the job
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.