The intimidating, 6’6″ 265-lb Smith recorded at least 29 saves each year from 1983 to 1988 with a menacing glare and a 95-mph fastball. When he retired, he stood alone as the all-time saves leader with 478 and also ranked first in games finished (802) and third all-time in appearances (1022).
Originally, Smith resisted a move to the bullpen. “When [Double-A Manager] Randy Hundley tried to make me a reliever,” Smith told the San Jose Mercury-News in 2000, “I took it to mean that I was not good enough to start.” For a brief period he quit baseball to play basketball at Northwestern Louisiana State until a visit from Cubs great Billy Williams convinced him to return to the mound.
Notorious for his slow gait coming in from the bullpen, Smith shared closing duties with future AL MVP Willie Hernandez in 1982 (inheriting the job from Dick Tidrow) and led the NL in saves for the first time for the Cubs in 1983. Smith then strung together four straight seasons with 30 or more — at the time, Dan Quisenberry had been the only other pitcher to accomplish that feat.
Smith won the 1987 All-Star Game for the NL with three shutout innings, but amid rumors that his bulk was beginning to affect his knees, the Cubs’ all-time saves leader was traded to the Red Sox for Calvin Schiraldi and Al Nipper in the off-season. In his Fenway Park debut he blew a lead and surrendered a game-winning home run, but he recovered to post 29 saves and 96 strikeouts in 83.2 innings as well as his best ERA (2.80) since 1983 as Boston won the AL East.
Smith was 6-1 with a 3.57 ERA and 25 saves for the Red Sox in 1989, but was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals at the beginning of the 1990 season for outfielder Tom Brunansky. He returned to his dominant self with the Cardinals, recording a minuscule ERA of 2.06 in 1990 and then reeling off three straight 40-plus save seasons. Smith’s 1991 save total of 47 was a career-best and his 15 saves in June of 1993 set a major-league record.
Towards the end of the 1993 season, Smith was dealt to the Yankees for pitcher Rich Batchelor and proved his worth as a key member of the Bombers bullpen during the stretch drive. Smith made eight appearances and recorded 3 saves in pinstripes, but filed for free agency in October and signed a one-year deal with the Baltimore Orioles in January. He continued to master opposing batters, saving 33 games with the Orioles before filing again for free agency at the end of the year. Smith signed with the California Angels for 1995 and nailed down 37 saves in what would be his last productive year.
At the opening of the 1996 season Smith was traded to the Cincinnati Reds where he was primarily used as a setup man. Adjusting to the unfamiliar role led to a shaky season. In ’97 he inked with the Expos, but by July it became obvious that age had finally taken its toll. After announcing his retirement on July 15, 1997, Smith refused to answer questions from the media.
In 1998, Smith was invited to spring training by the Royals as a non-roster player, but was released when he refused to start the season for their Triple-A affiliate. Smith signed a minor league deal with the Houston Astros later that year but soon retired again. Within three years he was back in baseball as a coach in the Giants’ organization.