By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
His overpowering fastball and late-inning dominance with the Chicago Cubs are the primary reasons Lee Smith was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame by the Today’s Game Era Committee in 2019.
Some may even remember him as a menacing 6-foot-6, 260-pound closer with the Boston Red Sox or St. Louis Cardinals. But it was north of the border, with the Montreal Expos, that he recorded his final major league save.
No one would blame you if you have no recollection of Smith’s short tenure with the Expos in 1997 that saw him post a 5.82 ERA in 25 appearances, but the big right-hander made it clear in his Hall of Fame speech that he hasn’t forgotten about his time in Montreal.
“With the Expos my career came full circle because I had a chance to play under Felipe Alou, who was one of the first people I met in baseball,” Smith said from the podium.
“I got to round out my career in a wonderful city with the twin phenomenon of Pedro Martinez and Vladimir Guerrero.”
At that point during Smith’s speech, the TV cameras found Martinez and Guerrero sitting behind him on the stage with the previous Hall of Fame inductees.
“Now we’re together again — teammates,” Smith concluded.
Born in 1957, Smith was raised in Castor, La., and starred on his high school basketball squad. According to his SABR bio, one day in his junior year when he was walking across the outfield during a softball practice, a ball rolled to his feet and he picked it up and threw it to home plate. The coach marvelled at his arm strength and recruited him for the school’s baseball team.
His plan, however, was still to play college basketball. But in the meantime, Cubs scout Buck O’Neil liked what he saw from Smith on the mound and encouraged the Cubs to select the oversized righty in the second round of the 1975 MLB draft.
And when the Cubs dangled a $50,000 signing bonus, as well as an additional $8,000 for educational costs (per SABR), Smith decided to forego his hoops aspirations and pursue a baseball career.
Smith began in the Cubs’ organization in 1975 as a hard-throwing starter but over the next few years he fought his control. In 1978, with double-A Midland, he walked 128 batters in 155 innings and his manager Randy Hundley decided to convert him into a reliever. It was a move that didn’t go over well with Smith. He perceived it as a demotion and the disenchanted hurler left the club and briefly played college basketball before the Cubs dispatched Hall of Fame outfielder Billy Williams to convince him to come back.
Smith would return and eventually embrace his new role as a reliever, and after he registered 15 saves with triple-A Wichita in 1980, he was promoted and made his big league debut on September 1, 1980.
The following year, he notched his first big league save, and by the second half of the 1982 campaign, he had evolved into one of MLB’s most feared closers. With the Cubs between 1982 and 1987, Smith was selected to two All-Star games and accumulated a team-record 180 saves before he was dealt to the Red Sox.
He continued to be an elite fireman in Beantown and then with the Cardinals. In all, in his 18-season major league career, which also included stops with the New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles, Los Angeles Angels, Cincinnati Reds and Expos, he was selected to seven All-Star games, earned 478 saves (third all-time), captured three Rolaids Relief Awards (as the top reliever in his league) and led either the American League or National League in saves four times.
By the time Smith landed with the Expos in 1997, he was 39 and already had Hall of Fame credentials.
So how did he end up pitching his final big league games for a club north of the border?
The answer is that previous Expos closer Mel Rojas had left the club for a lucrative free agent deal with the Cubs and the team’s plan was to ease 23-year-old Ugueth Urbina into the ninth-inning role. The problem was that Urbina had undergone off-season surgery to remove bone chips in his throwing elbow. So the Expos were uncertain if he’d be ready for the start of the season.
The legendary Smith was a free agent, and after being used primarily in middle relief or in the set-up man role by the Angels and Reds in 1996, he was looking to be a closer again. On top of Smith’s stellar overall track record, the Expos had to be impressed by the fact that he had not allowed an earned run in 21 career innings at Olympic Stadium.
So in January 1997, the two sides hashed out a minor league deal that included an invitation to spring training.
“It’s a real nice fit,” Smith’s agent Jim Bronner told the Montreal Gazette at the time. “Lee wanted a chance to come back as a closer and he’s very motivated about getting that 500th save.”
As part of the deal, the Expos agreed that they would tell Smith by March 15 if he was going to be the club’s closer. If he wasn’t in the mix for that role, the deadline would give him time to pursue other opportunities.
Coming off an 88-74 season and a second-place finish in the National League East, the Expos had lost Rojas and outfielder Moises Alou to free agency and had traded left-handed starter Jeff Fassero to the Seattle Mariners. But even with those subtractions, there were still some that saw the Expos, with rising stars like Martinez, Guerrero and Rondell White, as possible contenders.
Once Grapefruit League games began, however, it was apparent that they hadn’t signed the flame-throwing Smith of the ’80s.
“He [Smith] doesn’t have the speed he once had,” Expos manager Felipe Alou told the Montreal Gazette. “But he had lost that speed two years ago when he saved 37 games (with the Angels). Before he used to blow people away. Now he has adjusted . . . he is a pitcher. He has control of a slider, fastball and splitter.”
Smith, for this part, wasn’t worried about his diminished velocity.
“By what Peter Gammons and the rest of the media have said about me, I should have stopped [pitching] 10 years ago,” he told The Gazette.
Smith pitched to mixed results in the first half of March, but with his fastball clocking in at just 87-88 mph, the club wasn’t convinced the 39-year-old could be relied upon in a ninth-inning role. So, as per their agreement, on March 15, they told the future Hall of Famer that they could not commit to him as their closer.
Smith conferred with his agent and opted to stay with the club to attempt to earn a middle relief role.
And after his three-up, three-down performance against the perennially contending Atlanta Braves on March 22 – in which he struck out Andruw Jones and catcher Fausto Tejero – his chances of heading north with the Expos improved.
“Lee threw better than I’ve seen this spring,” Alou told reporters after the game. “I don’t know about velocity. But his fastball had more life, more movement. His slider was better, too. He’s slowly but surely working his way into our situation.”
And ultimately, he did “work his way” into the Expos’ bullpen. On April 1, the club purchased his contract.
The Expos opened the season against the Cardinals at the Big O and in the second game, with his club leading 4-1, Alou gave the ball to Smith in the ninth inning, and the veteran righty didn’t disappoint. He retired all three batters he faced and picked up his first save as an Expo.
“I was a little nervous, man,” Smith told Montreal Gazette reporter Ian MacDonald after the game. “That’s why I took my time to get started I had to pound my chest a few times just to settle down. Actually it’s not uncommon for me to be nervous, but it was more than usual this time. But this is awesome, man. This was a great win.”
Two days later, Smith tossed another scoreless inning in a 5-4 loss to the Colorado Rockies. This represented his 1,000th big league appearance, which at the time made him just the fourth pitcher to reach that milestone (Hoyt Wilhelm, Kent Tekulve and Goose Gossage were the others).
Smith continued to impress in April and didn’t allow a run in his first eight appearances, running his scoreless inning streak at Olympic Stadium to 26.
“Lee’s throwing hard and he has great command of the outside. So far he’s been throwing the ball just inches inside and outside the plate. He hasn’t used his splitter much, but the slider’s been really good,” Alou told The Gazette’s Jeff Blair for an article published on April 25, 1997. “I just don’t have any doubts that this man is capable of saving many games here.”
Alou may have jinxed Smith with that statement, because the 6-foot-6 reliever’s scoreless inning streak at Olympic Stadium was snapped in his next appearance (April 27) when he allowed two runs in the 10th inning in the Expos’ 5-3 loss to the New York Mets.
“That’s the way it goes,” Smith told reporters after the game. “I made decent pitches, the same old rackety stuff I’ve been throwing up there for 15 years and they hit it. I broke some bats and they got some seeing eye hits.”
Following another rough outing on April 30, Smith seemed to rediscover his form in May, beginning the month with four scoreless appearances and notching his third save of the season on May 14.
However, after he struggled with his control in an outing on May 15, he was lit up for six earned runs in two innings in a pair of appearances against the Pittsburgh Pirates. In the latter contest, on May 25, he was summoned to protect a 4-3 lead in the eighth inning and surrendered a grand slam to Kevin Young.
Not surprisingly, as a result of this rough stretch, Smith’s role in the bullpen was reduced. He only made five appearances in June with the highlight being the scoreless frame he threw against the Philadelphia Phillies on June 10 to collect his fifth save.
By the start of July, he was barely being used. On July 2, he’d hold the Toronto Blue Jays off the scoreboard in the 10th and 11th innings at SkyDome in the Expos’ eventual 7-6, 13-inning loss.
But after that outing, he languished in the Expos’ pen for close to two weeks. The final straw for him was when he warmed up during the Expos’ 5-4 loss to the Marlins on July 14 but did not get in the game.
The next day, he told Alou and general manager Jim Beattie that he was leaving the team and going home.
“I quit Montreal because I didn’t think it was worthwhile sitting around when I wasn’t helping much,” Smith told Danny Gallagher for his 2000 book, Baseball in the 20th Century. “You can throw all you want on the side in the bullpen but it’s not the same. There were times when I’d go 12, 14 days without pitching. I have no grudges towards the organization. No ill feelings. Life is not perfect. I took time off and spent time with my kids. I really enjoyed it. Other than during the strike in 1994, this was the first time I had any time off.”
Smith did attempt a comeback the following year when he signed with the Kansas City Royals, but he was released at the end of spring training. He then latched on with the Houston Astros and pitched 12 games with their double-A and triple-A affiliates before retiring for good.
These days, Smith serves as a minor league pitching instructor in the San Francisco Giants organization.
You could say his career has come full circle once again because his former Expos manager Felipe Alou is also employed by the Giants, as a special assistant to baseball operations.
One of the best relief pitchers ever. So glad the expos played a role in his marvelous career.
Yes, indeed, Phil. Thanks for reading and leaving a comment.
Hi Kevin – Thank you for reminding us of Lee Smith & the Montreal Expos. Cooperstowners presents yet another thoughtful & inspiring baseball story. Love those Expos. Yesterday I took an Ontario Expos team jersey out of the closet and gave number 43 a good airing….. Could you please feature Rheal Cormier (2012 inductee) sometime??? I wonder how he is doing. Keep up your good work buddy. Sincerely, Stephen Harding.
Thanks for your note and your kind words, Stephen. I’ll see if I can track down Rheal Cormier in the future. Thanks again.
Thanks for the info. I forgot Lee played for the expos.
Thanks for your support and for reading.
great history Kevin. So many amazing players played in Montreal over the years. Smith seems like a big teddy-bear with the fans. So fun and easy to chat with.
Thanks for your comment and support, Scott.