COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- It took Lee Smith a long time to get to Cooperstown, but he is savoring the experience now that he is here.
“All the work paid off,” he said.
Smith, 61, smiled and laughed easily Saturday afternoon at the Clark Sports Center, just outside of town and a short walk from the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. He spoke for 45 minutes, alongside fellow inductees Mariano Rivera, Mike Mussina, Edgar Martinez and Harold Baines at a media availability before Sunday’s induction ceremonies. Smith retired as baseball’s all-time saves leader (478) and currently ranks third on the list, but after the Baseball Writers’ Association of America passed him over for 15 consecutive years, Smith finally earned induction into the Hall in December as a unanimous selection of the Today’s Game Era Committee.
MLB Network’s coverage of the 2019 Hall of Fame induction ceremony will begin today at 11 a.m. ET and be streamed live on MLB.com.
Smith is here because he is regarded as one of the greatest closers in baseball history. He spent 18 seasons in the big leagues, pitching for the Cubs, Cardinals, Red Sox, Angels, Expos, Reds, Yankees and Orioles.
He began his career in Chicago, where the Cubs converted Smith from a starter to a reliever. He hated it at the time.
Nowadays, it isn’t such a big deal to be moved from the rotation to the 'pen.
“It’s a step up, man,” he said laughing.
And it got him to Cooperstown, didn’t it? So, what made him such a great closer?
“You have to be a little off, I think,” he said, laughing.
And sleep. Smith loved to sleep.
“Man, there was nothing better than waking up with a three-run lead, dude,” Smith said.
Maybe Smith was ahead of his time. Teams nowadays have recovery rooms, where they can sleep and rest before games.
“They’ve got a room in Chicago, it’s like the quiet room, they’ve got beds and they’re monitoring these guys’ sleep,” Smith said. “I’m like, you’ve got to be kidding me. You should put my name on that door. Back in the day, the clubhouses weren’t big enough, especially for a man my size, to get comfortable. I could sleep anywhere. I remember the old stadium in Milwaukee. It was a tiny clubhouse. I could actually sleep right in the middle of the floor. The guys would step over me. Guys were like, 'Man, how do you do it?' Throw a towel over my face and I’m out, man. I always told the trainers that their job was making sure I was up in the sixth inning.”
They did their job. Smith has 478 saves to show for it.
“I was always able to relax, and I really think that helped out a lot,” he said.