Former MLB Closer Lee Smith Finds Enjoyment In Coaching
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.—It’s early morning during extended spring training at the Giants' complex. Players are going through morning workouts before splitting into two squads for the afternoon games against teams from other Arizona-based organizations.
The most vocal of the Giants’ coaching staff watching the hitters from behind the batting cage on Field 4 is Lee Smith, an 18-year big league veteran who this summer will coach one of the Giants’ two Arizona League teams after spending the previous 18 years as a roving instructor.
Watching batting practice wouldn’t normally be the duty of a pitching coach, but Smith enjoys talking to hitters, encouraging them and having a little fun with anyone within the sound of his voice.
“I like talking s--- to the hitters,” Smith says to those around the cage.
Talking comes as natural to Smith as intimidating hitters with his 6-foot-6, 260-pound frame and mid-90s fastball did in his playing days. It’s all part of his rural, small town Northern Louisiana background.
“My dad would talk,” Smith said about his gift for gab. “My kids used to give me a hard time. I’d see some guys standing on the corner and I’d ask them, ‘Hey, where are you from?’ It was just to strike up a conversation. That’s my personality, man, because now people won’t talk.
“Oh, how many people I’ve met in the park and I still talk to them today . . . I’ve got more friends on the damn grounds crews in this country than (I had) playing as friends.”
Smith, 60, certainly spent plenty of time in ballparks during his lifetime. A second-round pick by the Cubs in 1975, he pitched for eight major league teams over 18 seasons and retired with the all-time lead for saves with 478. Mariano Rivera (652) and Trevor Hoffman (601) have since passed him.
Smith appeared in six major league All-Star Games, including an epic three-inning relief appearance in 1987 in which he earned the win for the National League in a game that went 13 innings. His career spanned the time when the relief role transitioned from pitchers throwing multiple innings to more specialized roles, with his size and repertoire certainly helping to define the ninth-inning closer.
While more of a gentle giant with an engaging personality off the field, Smith was especially renowned for his intimidating presence on the mound—one of the big factors in his success as a pitcher.
“Not only was he a big man—and he looked taller when he was on the mound—but he also threw hard and he had a very fast slider,” said longtime Arizona League Cubs manager Carmelo Martinez, both a teammate and an opponent of Smith during their playing days.
“It was a little intimidating, but he was a guy who never pitched inside. But he knew he could handle the outside corners, usually knee high, with the fastball and the slider.”
Martinez added that Wrigley Field’s late afternoon shadows—before lights were added to the stadium—made Smith’s pitches even tougher to pick up.
With everything he accomplished in his baseball career, Smith often gets asked why he chooses the unglamorous coaching role on the complex-level backfields instead of taking it easy in his retirement years. He actually took some time off after throwing his last big league pitch for the Montreal Expos in July 1997, but a life of leisure just wasn’t for him.
“When I first retired, I was like, ‘Man, I’m going to go home, relax and just do the Lee Smith thing . . . relax, fish, hunt and everything like that.’” Smith said. “After two years of that, the peace and quiet got the best of me.”
Smith was coaxed out of retirement by Billy Hayes, who is currently the Giants’ catching coordinator but then managed San Francisco’s Double-A affiliate in Shreveport, La., not far from Smith’s hometown of Castor, La.
“He called me and asked me about doing something,” Smith said, who at times refers to himself in the third person. “I said, ‘Yeah, man, I’d consider that because I’m bored and I’ve got to find something to do with myself.’ This is going to be 19 (years in coaching) for Smitty. I’ve been tricking them good.”
With the Giants adding a second Arizona League team this year, it was time for Smith to give up the roving instructor role to focus on coaching in the Arizona League. That’s OK with Smith, since he’s always asked the Giants’ management to allow him to work with pitchers at the Double-A level or below.
“To find the kids before they get into where they know everything,” Smith said, when asked about his preference for teaching younger pitchers. “And to try to help them get to not making the mistakes on the field that I did as a pitcher. Just really trying to get them comfortable.”
Smith’s knowledge and his effectiveness rub off, not just on the players but also on his fellow coaches.
“The way I think about Smitty, having him here is a blessing,” said Mario Rodriguez, who pitched in the Giants’ organization for seven years before moving into a coaching role into 2013. “He has so much knowledge about the game. He’s such a great personality. He loves baseball. He loves being around the kids and they love him.
“He’s always valuable for anything, just to help them out in all the areas, especially about pitching and relieving situations . . . He’s teaching them how to pitch aggressively, how to control the game and how to keep the pace of the game.”
With all his years of experience, Smith doesn’t have a lot of trouble getting his younger pitchers to pay attention to him. He learned from a veritable “who’s who” of baseball legends—starting with Buck O’Neill, one of the premier emissaries for Negro League baseball during his lifetime and the Smith’s signing scout with the Cubs in 1975.
A starting pitcher in his first four pro seasons, Smith’s baseball career nearly ended when the Cubs planned to turn him into a reliever.
“When I got to Double-A with the Cubs, they decided to make me a relief pitcher,” Smith said. “And Smitty wasn’t too fired up about being a relief pitcher. So the next road trip to Midland, Texas, we were going to play Shrevport, Jackson and Little Rock. I packed all of my bags and the guys said to me, ‘Hey, man. We’re only going on a 10-day road trip.’
‘Well you’re going on a 10-day road trip’” Smith recalled saying. “’I’m going home for the rest of my days . . . I’m just snagging a ride.’”
Smith enrolled at Northwestern State in Nacogdoches, La., and played basketball that offseason. After receiving a contract offer from the Cubs for the ensuing season, Smith told the organization, "Nah, I’m through with baseball. I’m finished with it."
Not wanting to lose a valuable pitching prospect, the Cubs sent recently retired outfielder Billy Williams to convince Smith to accept the contract and to report to spring training.
“I can’t tell you on this interview what (Williams) said to me, but it wasn’t good,” Smith said, adding that Williams reminded him that he hadn’t yet accomplished anything.
“I thought about it,” Smith recalled. “And then I said to the Cubs, ‘I’ll tell you what, if you guys double my salary I’ll come back.' (I was) thinking that they were going to say no because I didn’t want to come back . . . and they (doubled my salary).
“I give a lot of credit to Mr. Billy Williams for talking me into getting my ass off the couch and getting back to playing baseball.”
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Williams, who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1987, wasn’t the only Cubs legend with a big influence on Smith’s career. Fergie Jenkins, a pitching coach with the Cubs after the end of his 19-year playing career, taught Smith some of the lessons that he continues to pass along to the young Giants pitchers.
“Don’t throw the ball. Pitch,” Jenkins would tell Smith. “Always think about pitching and then things are going to fall into place.”
Late in his career, Smith was considered a shoo-in by some pundits to be elected to the Hall of Fame when eligible. While he remained on the ballot for all 15 years—the last candidate to do so before the eligibility period was lowered to 10 years—Smith never earned the 75 percent support needed to be elected. His remaining chance will be when the Era Committee considers his case.
“(It’s) difficult to swallow sometimes,” Smith said, when asked about his exclusion from the Hall of Fame, before pointing to another lesson he learned from O’Neill.
“That man was unbelievable . . . he treated everyone the same every day. For him not to get bent out of shape about not being in the Hall of Fame, then I don’t have any reason to have a chip on my shoulder for that.”
Smith has a relatively simple philosophy for pitching that he passes on to the young hurlers in the Giants’ organization: Throw your fastball for strikes.
“You have to control the strike zone with the fastball,” Smith said. “You find that guys can’t wait to get to their secondary pitches and they don’t get to (them) because they’re behind in the count.”
Like Jenkins taught him, Smith can’t emphasize enough that pitchers must pitch and just not throw.
“Now we’ve got so many guys trying to throw 98 (mph) and punch out the side so they can poke holes in the sky,” Smith said. “Do the Greg Maddux thing. When he came up, Maddux got his butt kicked trying to pitch 95 or 96. When he learned how to pitch and move the ball around . . . where is he now? The Hall of Fame.
"If you can just pinch off a piece of that, it would be a great thing for some of these kids."