On field, in clubhouse, Smith is relief to Angels


ANAHEIM, Calif. -- After more than 20 years with the California Angels and 77 years in professional baseball, Jimmie Reese died last July at the age of 92 and the organization mourned his passing. Reese's locker remained empty for what was left of the baseball season.

This says something, then, about how much the Angels think about Lee Smith: He occupies Reese's old locker, the pictures of his family taped around a black-framed picture of the former coach.

"He's been excellent," said Angels manager Marcel Lachemann. "He's been everything we could want, closing games and in the clubhouse."

Smith leads the AL in saves, just as he did a year ago for the Orioles, with 12 in 12 opportunities, the latest coming last night in California's 6-5 victory. Smith hasn't allowed a run in 12 2/3 innings; he has given up eight hits and walked seven, striking out 12.

Smith wanted a two-year contract after last season, but the Orioles balked, worried about the right-hander's sudden decline in the last month of the season. He was 37 and the Orioles weren't sure -- like the Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals, his former employers -- if the descent would be steady.

Smith has long since lost the ability to throw the ball 95 mph; now he spots his fastball and continues to rack up saves.

"They wanted to go with youth," Smith said of the Orioles. "They wanted to go with Armando [Benitez] and [Alan] Mills. I can't get mad at that. It's time to move on."

The Orioles weren't the only team to pass on Smith in the off-season. Smith said he called Doug Melvin, the former Orioles assistant general manager who moved on to become GM of the Texas Rangers, and asked Melvin if Texas would be interested.

"He told me he didn't want to step in the way if Baltimore was interested in me," Smith said. "That was just a nice way of telling me to get lost."

Smith can laugh at how he has been passed over -- "They've been trying to get rid of me for eight years," he said, smiling -- but he's somewhat frustrated that teams seem to overlook his ability to pitch.

"Every time I have to prove myself," Smith said. "I don't throw 95-96 mph and I can't throw it past them anymore."

He paused, and asked rhetorically, "Because of that, I'm not smart enough? I'm not into the macho stuff [of blowing fastballs past hitters]. I'll take a two-bouncer to the shortstop."

Orioles catcher Chris Hoiles credits Smith's success to his ability to pitch the ball to the exact part of the strike zone where the hitter is at his weakest. "Everybody talks about how he's fading," Hoiles said, "and about how he failed a few times for us [in July and August].

"But when you're talking about pitching in 40 games, getting save chances, nobody can get it done every time. He doesn't have the stuff he used to have, but he's got the stuff it takes to close games."

Smith gradually will lose what he has as he gets older, Hoiles said, but the bottom line is the reliever is getting the job done with what he has.

"Obviously, the Angels saw something in him," Hoiles said, "because they gave him a two-year deal."

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