YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Angels Will Get Relief Only if Smith Departs

May 05, 1996|BILL PLASCHKE

For someone 6 feet 6 and as thick as an antique chest, he walks around the Angel clubhouse with an impossible softness.

One moment the room is empty, the next moment he is five feet away, wearing the gentle smile of a stuffed animal, carrying the voice of a little boy.

But somewhere deep, Lee Smith is heavy, and hard, and he boils.

"You know, I get tired of all the negative bull, all the talk that I'm all washed up," Smith says. "Been about 10 years now, being all washed up."

It is late Friday afternoon. The Angels will soon play the Minnesota Twins. Smith is 10 minutes late for team stretching. He cares, but he doesn't.

"I can see if I had done something to somebody, they can kick me around the curb," he says. "But I haven't done nothing."

Not yet. But somewhere deep, an eruption is coming. Lee Smith is going to roar like one of last year's fastballs, brushing back a young team's psyche, whistling dissension past their ears.

He's not raising his voice yet, but he will. He's not bringing his personal war with age and fallibility into the dugout, but he will.

They all do, these modern-day players pumped so full of machismo and money, they believe they deserve to live forever.

Soon, this future Hall of Fame relief pitcher who has lost his job as a closer to knee-knocking Troy Percival will complete the short walk from asset to nuisance.

A hint for Angel management:

Stop him before he does. Trade him. Release him. Rid yourself of him. Yesterday.

Yes, nobody in baseball history has collected more career saves than Smith's 471. Yes, last year, even at age 37, he recorded 37 saves, second in the American League.

But in the second half of last season, Smith had only 15 of those 37 saves while his earned-run average was a full point higher (3.96) than in the first half.

He was fading. And he has faded further this spring after suffering an off-season knee injury after stepping in a hole during a hunting accident.

So far this season, he has blown his only save opportunity. In four innings sandwiched around a spell on the disabled list, he has given up two runs and four hits. His fastball had run like a car that could not get warmed up.

Percival, meanwhile, recorded 11 saves in his first 11 opportunities without yielding so much as a run and striking out 18.

Yet Smith wants his old job back, or he doesn't want to work here at all?

A couple of weeks ago, when Smith first showed the world his fine collection of whines, he said, ". . . if I can't do the job, or if the team is better with Percival as the closer, they'll say, 'See ya Smitty.' "


See ya Smitty.

We've seen what is in Smith's heart, now we'll see what is in General Manager Bill Bavasi's.

He must have the courage to ship out a pitcher who would be valuable insurance on those August days when Percival cannot lift his arm. A pitcher who makes $2.1 million this year whether he ever touches another ball.

It is with such courage that legacies are made.

"In this game, players who talk are only problems if somebody listens," Bavasi said Friday, noting his comments were not directed at Smith. "Our clubhouse is the kind that doesn't listen. A player comes into our clubhouse and yaks, he doesn't have an audience."

He hopes.

He says this, then notes that he and Smith have talked about the possibility of a trade, and that, "We will not be afraid to be do something to improve this team."

The catch is this: Scouts at the Big A on Friday were saying that nobody will trade for Smith, even if the Angels eat half of his contract, until he can prove his 38-year-old body is sound.

Smith wants the Angels to let him prove that during game situations. The Angels would prefer that a tryout not come at the expense of a victory.

What's one victory? After last year, this is not the team to ask.

That leaves the usual proving ground of the minor leagues, in the usual method of several rehabilitation stints that would be watched by scouts from everywhere.

How does Smith feel about this? Well, while on the disabled list, he only agreed to pitch in one of several scheduled minor league games. And only after convincing officials to let him pitch in the first inning for a totally disrupted team from Class-A Lake Elsinore. So Smith could go home early.

The Angels claim none of this is a problem. But then, none of them sees the TV cameras panning from Smith to Manager Marcel Lachemann with every Percival appearance.

The most exciting young pitcher in the league, and the story is elsewhere.

"They are both men, we aren't going to worry about it," outfielder Jim Edmonds says.

But then when a reporter turns away, Edmonds shouts across the clubhouse to the wunderkind:

"Hey Percy, what do you want me to tell these guys about the quarterback controversy? Why don't these reporters ask you? Why do they always ask me?"

Quarterback controversy.

His words, not ours.

Los Angeles Times Articles