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Original Issue

It's tough to tee off on this guy

Bryn Smith of the Expos is way above par on the mound

Montreal righthander Bryn Smith, who isn't to be confused with Dave Smith, Lee Smith, Lonnie Smith, Ozzie Smith or Bryn Mawr, ranked among the National League leaders at week's end with a 4-1 record. We will get to the whys and wherefores of that record in time. There are more interesting things about Bryn Smith than his pitching.

Like his name. Bryn (it rhymes with grin) is taken from the initials of Smith's maternal grandfather, Baxter Robert Young Nisbet. Bryn is also a common Welsh name, meaning hill. On the hill, Smith takes charge. "He gets the ball and goes right at 'em," says first baseman Terry Francona. "It's fun to play behind him because he's also so relaxed. You know if you make an error he won't mind, so you wind up playing better."

"I think of my job as nine rounds of boxing," Smith says. "Work, rest, work, rest. Maybe the first couple of innings I'll take some licks. So I'll say, 'O.K., I took too much for granted, let's finish the fight.' "

And then there are Smith's interests. He carries a three handicap in golf, which isn't bad for a guy who plays only six months a year, and dreams of joining the senior tour when he becomes 50. In off-seasons Smith has worked as an oilfield technician, a landscaper and a truck driver. Last winter he took care of his 2-year-old son, Cody, while his wife, Patti, worked in the cash room of a department store. "I kind of like being a mother," says Bryn.

Which brings us to Smith's relationship with his mother. Last Saturday, after Smith lost for the first time this season, 6-1 to the Cardinals, he had a long chat with his mother, Meg, who had watched the game on television in Santa Maria, Calif. Smith, 28, always talks to his mother before and after he pitches, and she always says the same things. Beforehand, she wishes him well and tells him to concentrate. Afterward, she asks questions, like, "How did you feel when you were pitching? What were your thoughts? How did you concentrate?" That's because Meg Smith has a pretty good idea what Bryn Smith goes through.

"Pitching is a lot like acting," says Meg, a former member of the publicity department at RKO Studios who dated Red Sox manager Ralph Houk and actors Cary Grant and the late Tim Holt and was introduced to her portrait photographer husband, Tom, by Jane Russell. "You need agents, you're on center stage, you have to memorize a script and you concentrate," Meg says. "I speak with Bryn to allow him to release-that bravado he's built up for his teammates and the press. When he speaks with me, he can show his true feelings. Then he can get on to the next stage."

Most of Smith's stages have been stage center. "My mother says I was a gift from God," says Smith, who was born in Marietta, Ga., where his father was then working. At age two Bryn fell into the deep end of a pool. A handicapped boy, leg braces and all, dived in and fished him out. The next year Bryn wandered away from home, setting off a massive hunt; late in the day someone realized Bryn was an unnoticed member of his own search party, his red hair having been obscured by cement dust. At age nine, Bryn performed in Arthur Miller's All My Sons at a local theater his parents had founded—and then beat the crowd to the exit to sign autographs. By 14 he was a crack member of the Santa Maria High School golf team.

Big and ambling, with an impish grin, Smith eventually concentrated on baseball and ran up a 21-2 record his last two seasons in high school. "The scouts said he was too big in the hips [Smith is still called Pearbody], and he'd get too heavy and be too much of a risk," says Bill Yanez, then the Santa Maria coach. "They also said that Roy Howell of the Brewers, who was in our league, had poor vision that would only get worse. Guess that shows what I don't know."

When Bryn was 17 his mother picked him up at a baseball camp and took him to the top of Dodger Stadium. "This is where I have to be," he said grandly. "I have to pitch here." But his route to the majors was tortuous. A 49th-round choice of the Cardinals in the 1973 free-agent draft, Smith decided to attend local Allan Hancock Junior College, where he was all-conference in 1974. He was passed over in that June's draft and six months later he signed with Oriole scout Ray Poitevint for $1,000, $500 of which went for Patti's engagement ring.

Then came seven seasons in the minors. First, Smith was buried in the Oriole system behind Dennis Martinez, Mike Flanagan and Tim Stoddard. On Dec. 7,1977, he was a throw-in in a six-player trade with the Expos featuring Rudy May, Don Stanhouse and Gary Roenicke. At first Smith was overjoyed to join a younger organization. Then he discovered he was competing with such promising pitchers as David Palmer, Bill Gullickson and Scott Sanderson.

"It all came down to a moment in 1981," says Smith. "I was two and four at Triple A Denver, and it looked like I'd either go back to Double A, where I had already won 40 games, or be released. I was thinking of quitting baseball. I sat down with my wife and parents, and we decided that I'd stay, if for no other reason than that I had a good summer job. I mean, I wasn't going to earn $2,200 a month at home. I said, 'Whatever happens, happens. The pressure's off.' "

Smith went on to win 13 of his last 14 decisions, made the Expos as a reliever in 1982, and was inserted into the rotation last July 29. In 12 starts he had three shutouts, five complete games and a 2.49 ERA. Unfortunately, he also had a 5-7 record because the Expos scored only 3.4 runs a game for him, three fewer than they've averaged for him this season.

Smith, whose best pitch is a hybrid palmball that floats up to the plate and then drops suddenly and tails from left to right, doesn't keep track of his stats and is only moderately interested in the multi-year deal he could command after this season (he now has a one-year, $150,000 contract). "The only thing any of us want is a World Series ring," he says. After losing to L.A. in the final game of the '81 championship series, the Expos have finished third in the NL East the last two seasons and as of Sunday were in fourth place, one game over .500 and 1½ games out of first.

"Chemistry is everything," says Smith of his team, "and we don't have enough togetherness. Maybe it's because all but two of our players are married. They go home instead of drinking. I think we need someone crazy—a guy who'll sit on birthday cakes. I did some things in the minors, like hit a golf ball down a motel corridor and skinny-dip at 2 a.m., but the only thing I've done in the majors is hit a golf ball out of Olympic Stadium to win a $10 bet from Joe Garagiola and Tony Kubek. I guess I was afraid [manager] Bill Virdon or [club president] John McHale wouldn't approve. And I wasn't established enough. People would say, 'Who are you to do that?' " But now? His eyes gleamed.

"Uh-oh," said Patti, "I think he'll spend the rest of the night thinking up practical jokes."

Well, Bryn Smith always was more than just a pitcher.


Three-handicapper Smith hopes to play the senior tour.