Dave Smith spends most of his time at home in Olivenhain, Calif., these days, surfing, working out in his home fitness center and listening to the voices in his head. Most of the time they tell him to wait for the team that will give him what he knows he's worth: at least $1 million a year for two years. At other times, as when he's riding a wave just right, money is the furthest thing from his mind. "I've been loyal to the Astros my whole career," says Smith, 32, who made $700,000 last year and has spent eight seasons with Houston. "The only reason I'd leave now is if they're not loyal to me." Smith's agent, Alan Hendricks, tells him to sit tight. Smith's wife, Mia, tells him to keep an open mind. Smith tunes them in and out. Mostly he surfs and waits.
Last season, Smith, a 6'2", 190-pound righthanded relief ace, went until June 18—22 appearances totaling 27⅖ innings—before he allowed his first run, earned or otherwise. He finished the year with 24 saves in 28 opportunities and a major league leading 1.65 ERA, and he still hasn't allowed a regular-season home run since July 19, 1986. He throws a fastball that can sink or sail, a crackling curve, a forkball, a devastating change and a no-seam fastball, held between the H on the horsehide, whose behavior has led some opponents to accuse Smith of scuffing the ball. Smith ignores those charges. "He doesn't care if World War III breaks out around him," says San Diego Padre second baseman Tim Flannery, Smith's best friend and off-season surfing buddy. "Teams try to get inside his head. He doesn't care. It's something you can't teach."
"Anywhere else Smitty would be labeled a star, a savior," says Astros second baseman Billy Doran. "It's a shame in certain ways he's taken for granted here. People won't totally appreciate him until we don't have him."
Smith says that in October he and Astros owner John McMullen "kicked around" some numbers over dinner one night. Smith originally called the figures "pretty fair," but then decided they weren't fair enough. Since then, the Astros have moved slowly in their negotiating.
Hendricks says that if there's an open free-agent market—and he, like a lot of other baseball folks, didn't know last week if there would be—Smith should at least hear from Boston, California and Oakland, teams that need closers. If those clubs aren't heard from by Dec. 19, Smith may be forced to accept arbitration, something neither he nor the Astros want. "Not only would they lose," says Smith, predicting that the arbitrator would find Houston's offer wanting, "but I'd be a little bitter about it. I won't go to spring training unsigned."
Smith likes to talk about how he came out of nowhere to become a star. He was drafted by the Astros out of San Diego State in the eighth round in 1976, and in five years as a starter in the minors, he had a winning record only once—7-5 in '77. In 1980 he joined Houston's bullpen and went 7-5 with 10 saves and a 1.92 ERA. After that season he had four good years and then three sensational ones. "Chemistry and competition," Smith says, will determine where he plays in '88 if he's forced to leave Houston. He wants to live on one of the coasts, the better to jump on his surfboard at a moment's notice. But most of all, he says, "I want to be on a winner. Ideally I would have liked to have signed with the Astros after last season."
On a bright day, Smith pulls his Ford Bronco up an exit ramp off Interstate 5 and heads west, toward the ocean. At the end of the road, he looks out and checks the waves. "Ah, a swell," he says. "Let's get wet." He doesn't want to think about money just now.
Ace reliever Smith isn't awash in offers, but he isn't high and dry—yet.