Lee Smith’s best baseball memory involves an All-Star game.

He was delighted to share the story Wednesday in Portland, where he was on hand for another All-Star game, this time as the pitching coach for the Western squad in the Eastern League game.

Smith, a hulking 6-foot-5 right-hander from Louisiana, is third all time on major league baseball’s saves list with 478 over an 18-year career.

But in the 1987 All-Star Game in Oakland, he pitched three innings to earn a victory, and even was forced to bat wearing a helmet from a different team.

“I struck out Mark McGwire in his home ballpark,” Smith said of the then-rookie slugger with the A’s. “It’s one of those things where you think you get recognition as being one of the quality closers.”

Smith, then a member of the Cubs, struck out three other players, the last NL pitcher to fan four in an All-Star game until the Dodgers’ Zack Greinke did so Tuesday.

Smith wasn’t aware of that distinction. But he laughed when he spoke about having to step in against Jay Howell in the 13th inning and bunt, while wearing a borrowed Montreal Expos helmet after Cubs teammates Ryne Sandberg and Andre Dawson had left the stadium. Smith recalled laying down a sacrifice, but he actually struck out. No matter. Tim Raines hit a two-run triple to give the National League, and Smith, the victory. The last pitcher left, Sid Fernandez of the Mets, picked up the save.

“Just to be one of the best of your league in baseball, as tough as it is, is a really great thing,” said Smith, a seven-time All-Star.

Smith, who now works for the San Francisco Giants, was at Hadlock with his 11-year-old son, Nicholas, a devoted Red Sox fan. His mother and uncles all went to Boston College, Smith explained. Dad introduced Nicholas to his idol, David Ortiz.

Smith played two-plus seasons for Boston, picking up 54 of his then-record saves total. The best part of playing for the Red Sox, he said, was getting to learn from Roger Clemens, who taught Smith how to throw a split-fingered fastball.

“He said to me, ‘Smitty, man, how do you keep that ball down like that?'” Smith recalled. “I said, ‘Dude, I came from (Wrigley Field) and this ballpark here might be smaller.’ So it makes you think as a pitcher, you just can’t get 2-0 and think I’m going to throw down the middle just to get there. I saw Roger Clemens throw the splitter 3-0, bases loaded. I said, ‘Man what are you doing?'”

Smith wanted to be a starting pitcher, but was converted to relief because of control problems. Something about coming out of the bullpen clicked, he said, even though he initially considered it a demotion.

He was elite enough in that role to make $21 million over his career. Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman have since surpassed his saves total, but Smith struck out 1,251 batters in 1,289 innings, with a 3.03 ERA in 1,022 games.

He has been passed over for the Hall of Fame on 13 occasions, getting as high as 50.6 percent of the vote total (75 percent is needed) in 2012. This year, he got only 30.2 percent.

He said he’s stopped worrying about that honor.

“My first couple of years it would bother me because I thought my chances were looking pretty good. But now it goes up and down; it depends on who’s on the ballot, and it’s really tough to figure out what they’re thinking,” Smith said. “I used to sit around the television and see what my chances are. After about that third year, I’m like, ‘OK, I’m going fishing.'”

 


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