In the hot film Top Gun, Tom Cruise stars as an F-14 Navy fighter pilot specially trained to turn a $36 million jet into the ultimate war machine. As the ads say, it's a movie about being the best.
The film's theme of guts and glory at 40,000 feet could apply to another risky act—the business of late-inning relief pitching. As of late, one ace has laid claim to the title of National League top gun, and that's Dave Smith of the Houston Astros.
Through Sunday the 6'1", 195-pound Smith had a league-leading 16 saves. In the American League, the Orioles' Don Aase leads with 18, and the Yankees' Dave Righetti has 16. Seven of Smith's saves were achieved in April, pushing him to the head of the Astros' alltime list. His eight saves in eight consecutive appearances set a National League record. In a streak that started last Aug. 8 and lasted until May 24, Smith converted 21 straight save opportunities. He is one of the major reasons why Houston is in first place in the NL West.
Says Astros coach Gene Tenace, "I caught Rollie Fingers and Bruce Sutter, so I know a good reliever when I see one. Smitty's one of the best." Mets broadcaster Tim McCarver, a longtime believer in Smith, says, "This is one tough dude."
Smith grew up in the San Diego suburb of Poway, Calif., listening to the F-14s take off and land at nearby Miramar Naval Air Station, where much of Top Gun was filmed. Joining the Astros in 1980, he earned the nickname Flight 45, not only for the number he wears but also for his free-spirited, surfer mentality. When the Astros are on the Coast, Smitty has been known to strut into the clubhouse, white towel wrapped around his neck, fresh from a day at the beach.
"Growing up with beach rats, you learn not to be a conformist," says Smith, whose love of the ocean runs deep. His greatest thrill in sports is still the time the December 1985 issue of Surfer magazine ran an action picture of him. "I don't always wear the right practice uniform. I hate hats.... I guess I'll never be able to play for the Dodgers," he says. On the mound, Smith's saving grace is his temperament. "He has no fear," says Astro second baseman Bill Doran. "His attitude is, 'Let's go, let's see what happens.' That's why he's the perfect stopper."
The 31-year-old Smith also has the right stuff: an 88-mph fastball that dips and darts, a crackling curve and his signature pitch, a devastating change-of-pace forkball. Says first-year manager Hal Lanier, "I didn't know Smitty had as many pitches as he does. He's not afraid to throw the forkball in any situation. And he doesn't get behind in the count; he goes after hitters."
Smith's career with the Astros has not been all blue skies. In 1980 he had a 7-5 record, a 1.92 ERA and 10 saves, finishing fourth in the Rookie of the Year voting. But after a solid second season (5-3, 2.76 and eight saves) he crash-landed in 1982 when a chronic back condition was aggravated early in the season. "How bad was that year?" says his vivacious wife, Mia. "You don't want to know." Says Smitty, "All I remember about that year was the pain."
After two more frustrating seasons as a setup man for other relievers, last summer Smith got the call again. He answered with 27 saves (in 31 opportunities), third only to Jeff Reardon of Montreal and Lee Smith of the Cubs in the National League. Dave also had a 2.27 ERA in 64 games, and his rate of 1.93 walks allowed every nine innings was the best among NL relievers.
And his Flight 45 image? "Let guys think that," he says with a smile. "Usually I'm two or three pitches ahead of the hitter. I read the box scores; I listen around the cages; I watch pregame batting practice. If a hitter's working on something, you can be sure he's having trouble with it. Of course, I may be playing Hacky Sack in leftfield, but I'm keeping my eye on the cage."
Smith can be deadly serious when he has to be. He went toe-to-toe verbally with last year's manager, Bob Lillis, over some of his pitching decisions, and he will get into a teammate's face if he makes a mental mistake or shows a lack of hustle. "I won't let anything slip by," says Smith. "I can't."
It's relatively early in the season, of course, but Smith is on a course that could take him to Dan Quisenberry's major league record of 45 saves and possibly beyond. If the saves keep coming, he'll certainly have to forget about cooling his jets at the All-Star break.