At the Hall of Fame induction ceremony Sunday in Cooperstown, New York, former Cubs closer Lee Smith will have fellow former Cub and Hall of Famer Billy Williams to thank. Because, truth be told, Smith wouldn’t have made it to the majors without Williams’ forward-looking approach to baseball and his encouragement.
During the 1978 season, Smith, whom the Cubs selected 28th overall in the 1975 draft, struggled as a starter. After the season, his minor-league manager suggested he was better suited for the bullpen.
“Back then, it was like a slap in the face being a reliever because it was like you’re not good enough to start,” Smith recently told the Sun-Times. “So they threw you in the bullpen.”
Smith was ready to quit baseball.
He set out on a new journey and planned to play basketball at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana, which is about 55 miles south of his hometown of Jamestown.
Before the 1979 season, Williams convinced Smith to return to baseball.
“I can remember Billy Williams saying, ‘Hey, man, I think the game is changing. The relief role is going to be an important role,’ ” Smith recalled. “Billy was the guy who talked me into coming back because he saw the game changing.”
Williams was indeed prescient, and Smith went on to become a seven-time All-Star. He played 18 seasons in the majors with eight teams.
Four decades after he nearly walked away from the game, Smith, 61, is being honored as a member of the Hall of Fame Class of 2019.
Smith, who was selected by the Today’s Game Era Committee, spoke to the Sun-Times about his favorite memory with the Cubs and his Hall of Fame election in this week’s Chat Room.
How well have you gotten to know Harold Baines during this Hall of Fame process?
Lee Smith: “I’ve known Harold Baines way before now, way before the Hall of Fame. Back in the day when I played for the Cubs, most of my running buddies were with the White Sox. Ozzie Guillen, you know, all the guys like that were, like, my running bodies.”
Have you rubbed off on Baines at all to make him more talkative?
LS: “It ain’t going to happen. He and Andre Dawson are about the same thing. Not very talkative. Actions speak louder than words. But I think it’s just their personality, and I’m the total opposite [laughs].”
What’s your favorite memory in the majors?
LS: “My favorite memory with the Cubs was the game with Ryne Sandberg hitting the two-run home run off Bruce Sutter. Everybody’s like, ‘Ah, man, you remember the Ryne Sandberg Game?’ Like you’ve got to look at all the stats on that game. I was the winning pitcher that game. I pitched two innings.”
You were one of the first dominant closers. How have you seen the bullpens change since you were playing?
LS: “All the teams are set up [with ample bullpen depth]. I think now if you see that team is going to be in the playoffs, the starting guys are going to be a little short, so you have a closer and a setup core. And I think the main thing is that closers don’t warm up as much. Back in the day, I might warm up four times during a game and not pitch in that game, so I’d come up in a situation in the seventh — whether it be the top or the bottom, situations like that — and I didn’t know if my arm was going to bounce back like that. So I think it makes the closer guys be a little sharper.”
Who do you think is best pitcher in the majors now?
LS: “Uh, [laughs] that’s a tough question for me because I like the young man pitching here [Lucas Giolito]. But I got to say I’m partial to the San Francisco Giants and Madison Bumgarner, that’s who I work for. And I’m a little partial to him. I know he’s getting up there in age, he has a lot of things going on, but he still has the heart. And you look at his stats when the team won a World Series and the numbers he put up in the postseason, and there ain’t no better. And I’ve known the kid since he was 18. So I’m still a Madison Bumgarner fan.”
Giolito’s story is so compelling. He went from being the worst starter in the majors to an All-Star in a year.
LS: “You’re right, but with me, it’s the longevity. Bum’s been doing it for a long time, and he’s only 29. Those things like that, you look at.”
As a pitcher, who’s a guy in the game right now you would want to pitch to?
LS: “Mike Trout. You always want to pitch to the best. He’s one of those guys that’s really weird as a right-handed hitter. Most right-handed hitters don’t hit the ball down well. And he can hit the ball down and up, and he’s probably as close to a complete player as you’ll see. Trout can play defense, run the bases, steal. He can do it all. We called that a five-tool player back in the day — you don’t see that as much anymore.”
What does it mean to you to be inducted into the Hall of Fame?
LS: “That’s the icing on the cake. You have a good career and things like that, but it hasn’t really sunk in a whole lot until I probably get to Cooperstown and see all those guys and get on the bus with them. . . . And I didn’t work to be a Hall of Famer. I worked to make it to the big leagues, take care of my family, things like that. And everything else like now and in the years coming is coming full circle for me. And it’s starting to really sink in a little bit about this Hall of Fame thing. I think Billy Williams said it right [at the Cubs Convention]. He said, ‘When you get to Cooperstown and you get on that bus with all of the other Hall of Famers, then it will sink in.’ ’’