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With dad ailing, Lee Smith eyes '95 Astros


PITTSBURGH -- Lee Smith says he would consider returning to the Orioles in 1995, but with his father ailing in Castor, La., he might prefer to play for the Houston Astros.

Smith said yesterday that his father, Willie, has suffered two strokes since the start of spring training, and is undergoing treatment for high blood pressure, diabetes and arthritis.

The Orioles have granted permission for Smith to fly home on days off, but that journey would become easier if he played in Houston, a three-hour drive from Castor.

Smith, however, recognizes the Astros already have an All-Star closer (rookie John Hudek) and might not be interested in a free agent who will be 37 next Opening Day.

Still, when asked yesterday if he wanted to return to the Orioles, Smith responded with surprising ambivalence, citing the health of his father, who is 64.

"That's a tough question," he said. "I like the city, the guys on the team. I ain't burning bridges. I'll wait to see what's up.

"I always thought, 'Do I want to play with Houston, it's so close to home?' My dad's not doing so well. But you've got to go somewhere where they'll give you a contract."

The Orioles, who signed him for one year, almost certainly will try to re-sign Smith if he continues on his 55-save pace. But general manager Roland Hemond said he understands his closer's anxiety.

"Absolutely," Hemond said. "It's been a concern to him, a concern to all of us, about his father's health. We've made it feasible for him to go home whenever possible."

Smith missed the Orioles' April 1 exhibition in Atlanta and has returned home four or five other times since then, Hemond said, always rejoining the Orioles in time for their next game.

The distraction has not affected Smith's performance -- he leads the majors with 29 saves in 33 opportunities, and was the only relief pitcher selected for the American League All-Star team.

"There's a guy we could have used, but we didn't know it at the time," said AL manager Cito Gaston, who lost closer Duane Ward to a season-ending injury in Toronto. "I'm sure 27 other clubs are saying that."

But after this season, Smith might be most interested in Houston -- even though the Orioles offered him the best opportunity last winter, signing him for $1.5 million plus incentives.

"You can't get everything you want," he said. "I'm definitely not counting out Baltimore. There's really not a whole lot I can do at home, other than give my mother moral support.

"I'm not going to say if I can't play for Houston, I'm not going to play anymore. And I'm not going to say I won't go back to Baltimore -- I would.

"You've got to go somewhere where they give you a contract."

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