12/17/08 10:44 PM EST
Former Astro Smith dies of heart attack
Two-time All-Star reliever was on three Houston playoff teams
By Alyson Footer / MLB.com
A two-time All-Star reliever with the Astros in 1986 and 1990, Smith finished his Astros career with 199 saves, second on the club's all-time career list behind Billy Wagner. Over a 13-year career that included two seasons with the Cubs, Smith compiled a 53-53 record over 603 appearances, recording a 2.67 ERA and 216 saves.
Smith's death came as a shock to the Astros community, which consists of many former players who either work for the organization or are in baseball in some capacity, many of whom keep in touch with each other even decades after their playing careers ended.
Tal Smith, currently the Astros' president of baseball operations, served as the club's general manager the first time the franchise reached the postseason in 1980. He spent the majority of the evening Wednesday calling Dave Smith's former teammates, and noted with sadness that three pitchers from that 1980 team have passed away in the past two years. Joe Niekro died from a brain aneurysm in October 2006, and Vern Ruhle died of cancer in January 2007.
"That was a very close-knit team in 1980," Tal Smith said. "They played together for quite some time, and for the most part, that's been a trademark of Astro clubs -- a lot of continuity, a lot of stability."
Tal Smith referred to Dave Smith as "a real stalwart" who was somewhat of a pleasant surprise when he made the team out of Spring Training in '80. The pitcher made his big league debut on April 11, 1980, when he allowed one hit and walked two in a one-inning relief appearance against the Dodgers.
Smith compiled 10 saves in his rookie season as one of three closing options. He was a right-handed complement to lefty Joe Sambito, who saved 17 games that year, along with righty Frank LaCorte, who saved 11.
Alan Ashby, the Astros' catcher for all three playoff teams in the '80s during his 11 seasons with Houston, said he was "shocked and saddened" to hear the news. Ashby also recalled 1980 as the year "we had just begun to hit our stride as a team," and he credited Smith with being a big part of the effort.
"He had one of the great changeups in the game -- such an effective pitch," said Ashby, now a part of the Blue Jays' broadcast team. "He could almost tell hitters it was coming, and they still couldn't hit it."
Smith gave up only one home run in 1980, and that homer didn't arrive until August, when Steve Henderson took him deep at Shea Stadium.
Tal Smith recalled being cornered by an angry club owner John McMullen after the game.
"He said, 'What are we bringing that guy in for?'" Smith said with a chuckle. "He gave up one home run all year, to a good Major League hitter, and McMullen was mad."
Jim Deshaies, who was a rookie in 1986 when the Astros won their second National League West Division title, recalled "Smitty" as a "good competitor, a good teammate and just a good guy."
Deshaies also remembered that Smith never wore a hat during batting practice, preferring instead to show off his thick mane of blond hair.
"He had that surfer thing going," Deshaies said. "He's a surfer guy from Southern California. He was just real likeable. I didn't know anyone that didn't like Smitty."
Smith's death came as a shock to the Padres, as well. He was a Minor League pitching coach in San Diego's organization from 1994-98, and spent 2 1/2 seasons as their Major League pitching coach from 1999 until the middle of 2001.
"It is with great sadness that the San Diego community learned that it has not only lost a great baseball man, but a great friend to so many of us here," said executive vice president/general manager Kevin Towers in a statement released by the team. "He was an integral part of the Padres for many years, as a Minor League instructor and coach and later as our Major League pitching coach. The entire San Diego Padres organization expresses its sincere condolences to Dave Smith's family."
Smith was born on Jan. 21, 1955, in Richmond, Calif. He attended San Diego State University and was selected by the Astros in the eighth round of the 1976 Draft.
He recorded double-digits in saves every year from 1985-91, reaching his career high in 1986, when he logged 33.
In 1999, Smith was named to the All-Astrodome team as Houston celebrated the closing of its home after the final game of the regular season. Smith was one of two closers honored, along with Wagner.
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.