Smith walked away from game as saves king

Part of the INSIDE PITCH series
Written by: Craig Muder

Lee Smith walked away from the game on July 15, 1997, with 478 saves.

More than nine years later, those 478 saves still represented the top total in big league history.

“He was a dominant guy,” said Hall of Famer George Brett, who was 1-for-6 in his career against Smith. “When he came in the game, it was over.”

Smith retired as an active player on that July day, having appeared in only 25 games for the Montreal Expos that season. At 39 years old, Smith was no longer the flame-throwing ace at the back of the bullpen.

But even late in his career, the 6-foot-5, 220-pound Smith commanded the respect from teammates and opponents alike.

“He still liked to pitch,” Expos manager Felipe Alou told the Associated Press. “You don’t like to see a guy like him leave in the middle of the season. Smith is a great guy.”

Debuting with the Cubs in 1980, Smith featured an electric fastball and darting slider. After the Cubs traded Bruce Sutter to the Cardinals following the 1980 season, Smith worked his way into the role as Chicago’s closer. By 1983, Smith earned his first All-Star Game selection and led the National League with 29 saves – often pitching multiple innings in each appearance.

Of Smith’s 478 saves, 169 required at least four outs and 94 required two-or-more innings pitched.

Smith saved at least 31 games a year from 1984-87 before the Cubs traded him to the Red Sox on Dec. 8, 1987. He helped the Red Sox win the American League East title in 1988 before the Cardinals acquired him on May 4, 1990.

Transitioning to a one-inning reliever as bullpen roles changed, Smith led the NL in saves in both 1991 and 1992, totaling 90 over two seasons and finishing second and fourth, respectively, in the NL Cy Young Award voting.

He saved 46 more games in 1993 with the Cardinals and Yankees, led the majors in saves with 33 in the strike-shortened 1994 season with the Orioles and saved 37 more games with the Angels in 1995 before time began catching up with his seemingly-tireless right arm.

A seven-time All-Star, Smith led his league in saves four times and reached the 30-save mark in 10 seasons.

“I tried to keep myself loose,” Smith said. “Just take the game as it is. Don’t put added pressure on yourself. The game is tough enough.”

Smith was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2019.

Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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Part of the INSIDE PITCH series