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Q&A: Reggie Smith, Borderline Hall of Famer

Earlier this year, when respected analyst Jay Jaffe named his Ken Keltner All Stars — aka the best eligible players not in the National Baseball Hall of Fame at each position — his right fielder was Reggie Smith. Some might argue that Dwight Evans or Bobby Bonds would be a better call, but Smith certainly has his bona fides. As a seven-time all-star, he accumulated 71.8 WAR between 1966 and 1982 and hit .287/.366/.489, with 314 home runs. A prolific switch hitter and an excellent defensive outfielder, Smith also had a reputation as a team leader. Now 67 years old, he runs Reggie Smith Baseball Centers in Encino, Calif.

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Smith on watching the game evolve: “When I played, the game was still coming out of the late ’50s, when ballplayers were really looked upon as heroes and role models. The game was played, I think, more for the love of it than for the money. We were making good salaries for the time, but nothing like today.

“I’ve seen the game change. The reasons that the players play the game has changed. I’ve actually seen players come into the game that did so because they were pushed into it by their parents. They were pushed because of the money and the opportunities that were there. I’ve seen players walk away from it for that very reason. They didn’t love the game and were playing it because someone else wanted them to.

“From a cultural standpoint, certainly you’ve seen change. It became more international, particularly as they began to cultivate and mine Latin America countries like Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. Now you’re starting to see them go into other countries like Japan, Korea and even Europe. Along with those changes, you see some of the cultural differences working their way into the game as to how it‘s approached. It has been a bit of shift, but part of that too is caused by a corporate approach to the game. It’s being run more as a business than as a hobby, as it was when I played.

“Of course, starting with Jackie, black athletes were allowed to participate in major-league sports. They were given the opportunity to show just how good they could be. I think that Negro League baseball definitely showed that blacks could play at the major-league level. We were given that opportunity, so just like teams signed white players, they were able to sign the better black players. Times changed.”

On stats: “From a pure statistical standpoint, I’m still a baseball purist in the old sense. The game is played on the field by individuals, and computers and statistics cannot tell you what’s inside of a person. Until they can put that into a computer and quantify it, only then will I change my opinion. Baseball is played by people.

“I always judged my season by how close I got to 200. I wanted to drive in 100 runs and I wanted to score 100. If I got close to those numbers, that’s how I judged if I had a good year or not. Things like slugging percentage didn’t mean anything to me. It was what I contributed to us winning ballgames, whether it was my presence in the lineup or having the opposing manager having to manage around me. He would pitch around me, which gave me an opportunity to get on base. My on-base percentage only mattered if I was able to score. That’s my feeling about on-base and slugging percentage, because if you’re not scoring, what good is it?

“If you’re talking about from an individual standpoint, the significance of all this is — especially now — players use these statistics for salary reasons. For arbitration, on-base percentages and all these numbers mean something. To me, it didn’t mean anything other than I was doing my job and finding a way to help my team win.”

On playing all but two of his 17 seasons on teams with winning records: “I’m very proud of that, and it is something that I’m very well aware of. I am very, very proud of that. I always liked to feel that whatever team I went to got better. That was not an accident. That happened, and I’d like to think that my presence made the team better and gave us a chance to win and be a competitive ball club. I am very proud of that.

“I played with, and against, a lot of great players. There were guys like Bob Gibson and [Carl] Yastrzemski. Lou Brock had a big effect on St Louis. We used to talk about what a superstar was, and I used to sit in a room where they had Ernie Banks, Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey, Billy Williams, Earl Wilson — a lot of guys when I was a young player. They talked about what a true superstar was. A true superstar, to them, was the player who made his team a winner. He was the one who made everyone better, just by his presence on that team.

“I’m not talking about players, like some today, who want to go to a winner. I’m talking about players who could go to a team and make them winners. That was something that was pounded into me. I took pride in wanting to be the best player I could possibly be; but more importantly, I wanted to win, so I would do whatever it took to win. If you look at guys like Frank Robinson, wherever they went, they made those teams better.”

On being one of the best players not in the hall of fame; “I feel good that people respect what I brought to the game. I had a good career. Are there things that I could have done better? I would think that yes, I could have. I had some injuries that checked me from maybe reaching the numbers that, to me, would have been deserving of me being the hall of fame. The Hall is a sacred place.”

On switch-hitting and how he compares to Ted Simmons: “I might have hit for more power, but Ted Simmons was a better switch-hitter than me. He was the only switch-hitter I ever saw who didn’t seem to have a weakness in terms of how you pitched to him. Left-handed, I was a better low-ball hitter. Right-handed, I was a better high-ball hitter. Ted Simmons didn’t seem to have that problem. He was a line-drive hitter and he did that from both sides. In 1974, if you look back, that might have been the first year that you had switch-hitters on the same ball club that hit .300, and .300 from both sides of the plate. And we both had 100 RBIs, with almost an equal number of RBIs from both sides of the plate.

“Until I hurt my shoulder, I had a higher lifetime batting average from the right side. But at any given time, I would have rather been up there left-handed, because in my mind I felt that I could hit the long ball more consistently from that side. If it was a tight situation — or a time where we needed to move the ball around — right-handed was my natural side. I was able to hit right-handed more when I went to St Louis because I didn’t see too many left-handed pitchers when I played for the Red Sox.”

On going from Boston to St. Louis to Los Angeles: “The National League was more suited to my style of game. They ran more and the pitchers were more often power pitchers. I was a fastball hitter. The league was built more around speed.

“I went [to the Dodgers] in the first year of free agency, in 1976. It was because of a contract snafu, caused by my asking for an interest-bearing trust account on deferred income. St. Louis didn’t want to do that, so I hadn’t signed a contract and was going to be a free agent. They had a few trades in mind. They asked me if I wanted an opportunity to go to Atlanta or Cincinnati. I said, ‘Look, I would rather stay here in St Louis, but if I’m going anywhere I want to go home.’ Los Angeles is where I grew up, and at that time, what better way to go home? I was at my best. I was in the prime of my career, so a chance to go home and play in front of my family was ideal at that time. It just so happened that [Dodgers GM] Al Campanis said that I was the player that team needed to become a dominant presence in the National league. The players they had were coming into their own, and I was the piece that happened to fit in. We wound up playing in three World Series.

“[The 1977 Dodgers] was the best team I played on, without a doubt. We had everything. All of the pieces were there and we accomplished something that had never been done up until that time. Never before had there been a team with four guys to hit 30 home runs — and if Rick Monday hadn’t gotten hurt we would have had five. We had pitching, speed, defense, power and hitting. We also had guys that knew how to play the game and knew how to win. It was fun, because the game was usually over by the fifth inning.”

On his throwing arm: “I took pride in my defense. I took pride in guys not being able to turn the corner. Pitchers used to tell me how much they appreciated that. I didn’t have as many assists as a lot of other outfielders, but the reason for that was… [Tom] Lasorda once said, ‘Who is going to run on you?’ He said that when he was a third base coach, his hands would go up. They stopped running on me, and that was more important to me than anything else. If I could keep a runner at second, that meant there would always be a force play.”

On music and giving back to baseball: “I have a music background that comes from my family. My mother played the piano, my sister played the piano and we were all encouraged to play an instrument. They used to offer it in school, and I liked music so I tried to play it. I still listen and occasionally I’ll play the drums because I enjoy doing that. I’m someone who tries to stay in tune with what’s happening in the world.

“Baseball has been a big part of my life, but I don’t look at it as being my life. I feel like I’m capable of doing other things, and I have done other things. But none of them have given me the satisfaction of baseball, which is why I got back into the teaching side of it. I have my own academy now. My purpose in life is to teach. My goal is to share the things I’ve learned, and hopefully some other kids — some other individuals — will have the opportunities to enjoy baseball, or any sport for that matter, as I have. The game of baseball has provided me with the economic mobility to do those things.

“I set up foundations to help kids that want to play baseball and go to school. I want to give back. If you look at the area that I came from in Los Angeles — at one time or another we could’ve been considered the Dominican Republic of the ‘60s and ‘70s with the number of athletes coming from Los Angeles who not only made the major leagues, but had prolific careers. The talent is still there, but we’re having to fight for it more because other sports offer better opportunities to get players to the major-league level a lot sooner. I want to help give them an opportunity to play baseball.”