Saving Grace

During the last week of spring training, an American League general manager watched from a distance as the Orioles worked out before an exhibition game. "Who is that?" he asked, when he caught a glimpse of one lumbering Baltimore pitcher. "That's the worst-looking baseball player I've ever seen." When it turned out that the player in question was closer Lee Smith, the G.M. said, "How could the Orioles have signed him?"

He wasn't the only general manager who asked that question. It didn't matter that Smith had saved 46 games in 1993, running his career record total to 401. He was 37 years old, he was carrying 270 pounds on his 6'6" frame, and his fastball was no longer overpowering. All that is still true, but in this year of fallen closers—Rod Beck, Rob Dibble, Bryan Harvey, Duane Ward and John Wetteland have all spent time on the disabled list—Smith has been the game's best stopper, saving 12 games in 12 tries without allowing a run in 10⅖ innings through Sunday. He had a save in 12 of his team's first 23 games, a feat no other pitcher has accomplished. Suddenly the one-year, $1.5 million deal that the Orioles gave Smith in January looks like a bargain, one the Yankees (Smith's previous employer) and a few other teams probably wish they had anted up for.

Smith resents the fact that baseball executives thought he was over the hill, but he says he's used to it, "it wasn't just last year; it's been the last five or six years," he says. "Teams told my agent [Jim Bronner] I was throwing only 83, 84 miles an hour last year. Once those reports come out, you get a reputation. It was like 46 saves didn't matter."

Scouts still say that Smith isn't throwing much harder than 85 mph, but he insists. "I'm getting it there quicker than that. And, anyway, it's not how hard you throw it, it's where you throw it." And sure enough, Smith's control has been outstanding. He refuses to deliver the ball near the center of the plate, yet Smith had allowed only one walk while striking out nine at week's end. "He's always had great control of the outside corner," says Oriole shortstop Cal Ripken, who has faced Smith in spring training for years.

Smith also has presence, a quality that cannot be overestimated in a closer. When he walks in from the bullpen, "people look at him and think it's over," says Baltimore manager John Oates. Smith gives them plenty of time to think, too. Oriole broadcasters have timed his leisurely stroll to the mound at around one minute. "He wants the game played at his pace." says Oriole reliever Mark Williamson. "He's in no rush. That's the way he lives his life. Not much bothers that man."

One thing that does bother him is when he isn't paid the respect he thinks he deserves. Says Smith, "Even if I have a great year, next winter they'll say, 'Who wants to take a chance on Lee Smith? He's 37 years old." I'll see the same old stuff again."

Hubbub on the Cubs

The Cubs did not win a home game in April—they went 0-9 in the unfriendly confines of Wrigley Field—and began May by losing at home on Sunday, too. Following a 6-5 defeat at the hands of the Rockies last Friday, Chicago manager Tom Trebelhorn got an earful from Cub fans when he participated in an impromptu question-and-answer session at a fire station near Wrigley. In demanding reasons for the slow start by the Cubs, who were 6-16 at week's end and 8½: games out of first place in the National League's Central Division, some of the questioners were abusive to Trebelhorn. He handled them with good humor, telling one to "go have another beer."

Chicago's bumbling beginning was probably more attributable to its faulty pitching staff than to anything done by Trebelhorn, who's in his first year as Cub manager. The rotation is built around three starters—Mike Morgan, Willie Banks and Anthony Young—who all have losing career records (they were a combined 116-186 lifetime through Sunday).

Chicago management decided that the way to improve the Cubs' performance was to start having strategy meetings before every game. They have had so many meetings, in fact, that the get-togethers are beginning to bother the players, who think the culprit is team vice president Larry Himes, not Trebelhorn. "We hold so many meetings that by the time we get on the field, no one knows what to think anymore," says Chicago third baseman Steve Buechele. "This game is played by instinct, not by radar guns and charts and computers and all that other crap they throw at us."

This latest minirevolt against Himes adds to his reputation as one of the least-liked executives in baseball. Don't be surprised if he is fired by the end of the season if the team's fortunes don't improve.

Who Is Mr. Clutch?

We posed that question to all 28 major league managers by asking them which player in their league, with runners at first and second, two out and the score tied in the ninth, would have the best chance of driving the run home? (The managers were not allowed to vote for one of their own players.) The winners were both clear-cut: Blue Jay Paul Molitor and Giant Barry Bonds.

The results certainly weren't a surprise, but the margins of victory were. In the American League, Molitor received eight of the 14 votes, the White Sox's Frank Thomas got three, and Blue Jays Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar and Ranger Will Clark got one each. Tiger skipper Sparky Anderson, who chose Molitor, said, "I wouldn't even pause. I want to see him batting cleanup on a team where the first three hitters get on base 700 times. I promise you Molitor would knock in more runs than Frank Thomas or anyone. Molitor knows how to get a base hit."

The National League managers were just as unhesitating. Bonds received nine of the 14 votes, the Cubs' Mark Grace got two, and there was one each for the Cubs' Ryne Sandberg, the Reds' Kevin Mitchell and the Padres' Tony Gwynn. Met skipper Dallas Green picked Bonds, saying, "It's pretty much a no-brainer, isn't it? Is there a better hitter in the game? There's not a pitch he can't handle. And he's got discipline and power." Phillie manager Jim Fregosi agreed and paid Bonds probably an even higher compliment, saying, "I'd probably walk him."

Sending a Message

Hats off to Padre manager Jim Riggleman for benching outfielder Phil Plantier, who failed to hustle on a fly ball he hit against the Mets while leading off the second inning on April 27. The towering fly landed untouched in leftfield when New York's Kevin McReynolds lost sight of the ball, but Plantier, who could have had a double, had to settle for a single because he wasn't running hard. So Riggleman yanked him, leading to an ugly scene in the dugout as Plantier stalked after the manager, complaining bitterly.

In Plantier's defense, he has played hard since joining the Padres last year and he has been playing with a sore ankle this season. But running hard to first base should be the least a player can do. And remember, this isn't the first time Plantier has had a clash with a manager. Red Sox manager Butch Hobson complained about Plantier's work ethic during the 1992 season, and that helped precipitate the trade that sent Plantier to San Diego for pitcher Jose Melendez.

The question now is how Plantier will react after being shown up by his manager. Sadly, players today don't often respond well to such criticism.

Short Hops

In September 1991 Padre hitting coach Merv Rettenmund said of young Astro shortstop Andujar Cedeno, "I hate him, but I'd love to have him." Rettenmund meant that Cedeno was raw and erratic but had remarkable tools: a live bat, a great arm, terrific range. Cedeno, now 24, has matured, and it shows. Through Sunday he was hitting .329 with five homers....

One of the best free-agent signings of the off-season was White Sox DH Julio Franco, who has been hitting cleanup. He had 24 RBIs through Sunday and had made it tough for pitchers to work around No. 3 hitter Frank Thomas....

Sadly but mercifully, it appears that the career of pitcher Dave Righetti, 35, is over. He was released by the A's on April 27 after amassing a 16.71 ERA in seven appearances. He had a terrific career, saving 252 games (most ever by a lefthander), winning 79 games and throwing a no-hitter during his days as a starter for the Yankees. Twin pitching coach Dick Such last week recalled a game in 1978 in which Righetti struck out 21 in nine innings for Tulsa, the Double A affiliate of the Rangers, but Texas traded him that year to New York for Sparky Lyle because they thought Righetti's arm would never last. They were wrong only by about 15 years....

Juiced Ball Note of the Week: Red infielder Tony Fernandez hit homers in four straight games between April 25 and 28. In his 10 previous seasons Fernandez had hit homers in two straight games only three times.

PHOTOV.J. LOVERONo pitcher has ever accumulated 12 saves in a season faster than the slow-moving Smith. PHOTORONALD C. MODRAWith a game on the line, Bonds (left) and Molitor are the hitters deemed most likely to deliver. PHOTODAVID LIAM KYLE[See caption above.]

Between the Lines

Joltin' Joe. Blue Jay Joe Carter is still hampered by a right thumb that was broken in spring training and remains so sore he can't open his car door with it, yet he set a major league record for the most RBIs in April, with 31, surpassing the old mark of 29 that was shared by three players. (Colorado first baseman Andres Galarraga also bettered that mark, with 30 April RBIs.) Carter's 31 ribbies were one more than Barry Bonds, David Justice, Mark Grace, Andy Van Slyke and Howard Johnson had—combined—for the month.

De-Juiced in Detroit. The only American League team that didn't score in double figures in a game this April was the Tigers. With virtually the same lineup last April, Detroit hit double digits five times, including two games in which it scored 20 runs.

Hail to the Chief. Twin first baseman Kent Hrbek, who has said he might retire after this season at 34 because of the abuse his body has taken during 14 years in the major leagues, was told that he shouldn't quit because, after all, the Celtics' Robert Parish, who's 40, wants to play another season. "But he's the Chief," Hrbek said, "and I'm a wreck." And that was before he went on the DL again on Sunday with a strained right hamstring.

The Age of Specialization. On April 26 Oriole Brady Anderson had four extra-base hits in his first four at bats during a 10-4 win over the A's, all of them while leading off an inning. But when he came up as the third batter in the seventh, he struck out. "See that?" he said, joking. "I can't be expected to produce in other roles. I'm a leadoff guy."