COMMERCE, Okla. — Lee Smith experienced the heated St. Louis Cardinals-Chicago Cubs rivalry from both sides.
Smith, one of baseball’s most dominant closers during his hall of fame career, reflected on his 18 years in the big leagues on Saturday at the Mickey Mantle Classic.
Smith, who played for the Cubs from 1980-87 and then suited up for the Redbirds from 1990-93, said he never took the rivalry too personally.
“It wasn’t weird for me,” Smith said of joining the Cardinals after playing with the Cubs. “The weird thing about that rivalry to me is it’s more about the fans. There were times when I came to St. Louis as a Cubbie and we had more fans there than the Cardinals did…and vice versa sometimes when we went to Chicago (as a Cardinal). The rivalry was mostly the fans. For me as a Cub, though, there was nothing better than getting out Ozzie Smith and then going to dinner to boast about it. I think I beared down on him more than anybody.”
Smith’s MLB career lasted from 1980-1997 and included stops with eight teams.
A 6-foot-6 right-hander, Smith is currently third on MLB’s all-time saves list with 478. Only Mariano Rivera (652) and Trevor Hoffman (601) have recorded more saves in MLB history.
Smith led the league in saves four times, was a seven-time all-star and three-time winner of the Rolaids Relief Man Award. Smith struck out 1251 batters in 1289 innings and finished his career with a 3.03 ERA and a career WAR of 28.9.
In 1991 with St. Louis, Smith set a National League record with 47 saves and was the runner-up for the Cy Young Award. Smith also led the NL in saves in ’92 with 43. Smith was the Cardinals’ career saves leader (160) until he was passed by Jason Isringhausen in 2006.
Smith noted he enjoyed his time in St. Louis, although the Cardinals never advanced to the playoffs during his tenure.
“We were a starting pitcher short, a power hitter short and we had some injuries and things like that,” Smith said of his years in St. Louis. “It was just one of those things…we were just a couple of players short.”
Smith’s best individual season in St. Louis was ’91, when the team went 84-78.
“We played good ball and we stayed healthy,” Smith said. “Everyone came to the ballpark knowing what position they were playing and where they were hitting. We had some young guys like Ray Lankford and Bernard Gilkey and they held their own. It was something to see.”
Smith added he enjoyed being teammates with Ozzie Smith, the legendary shortstop who went on to be a Hall of Famer himself.
“Ozzie led by example,” Lee Smith said. “He didn’t give speeches. He did extra work by himself. I’d never seen someone take ground balls after practice on his knees. The rookies see that stuff and they know he’s got all those Gold Gloves…they realize maybe they should practice a little more.”
Smith recalled being discovered by Buck O’Neil in his small hometown of Castor, Louisiana, before he was drafted by the Cubs in 1975. With that, Smith admitted he felt right at home in tiny Commerce.
“My hometown didn’t have a red light,” Smith said. “I felt like I was coming home here in Commerce. To see the kids get outside and play the game and get off the computers is great…that’s what I like to see. The purpose of baseball is to have fun.”
Speaking of fun, Smith recalled the emotional experience of watching the Cubs win the World Series in 2016.
“It was so amazing to see that,” said the 65-year-old Smith, who wore a Cubs hat during his appearance in Commerce. “I didn’t go to any of the games because I didn’t think my heart could take it. My TV was close enough. To see the city celebrate was great. There were a lot of years of suffering there, so the Cubbie fans really deserved it.”
It took some time after his playing days concluded, but Smith was eventually elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2019.
For Smith, it was a dream come true.
“I finally made it,” he said with a huge smile. “It still hasn’t sunk in though. I didn’t realize how three little letters…HOF…mean so much. It was unbelievable to get that call. But I can’t change, I’m still a country boy.”