Smith’s ’87 All-Star journey home is something to remember

There are plenty of indicators of how baseball’s All-Star Game has changed – bad uniforms, mic’d up players, an actual game that nobody seems to care about winning – but for me, there is no better example of where we are vs. where we were than 35 years ago in, of all places, Jamestown, Louisiana.

Seventeen hours after he was the winning pitcher in the All-Star Game in Oakland that had gone 13 innings (there’s another indicator!), Lee Arthur Smith of the Chicago Cubs found himself in a truck with two local sportswriters from the long-since defunct Shreveport Journal.

Teddy Allen was one. I was the other.

We rode from his home in Jamestown into Castor to help bring back some childhood memories for a story we were doing on him. We all sat in the front seat of Teddy’s truck – a young sportswriter couldn’t afford anything with two rows of seating – and Lee Arthur wasn’t about to sit between us.

But we rolled the windows down as we drove around and Smith waved at the people in town who instantly recognized him. A kid selling cantaloupes. Two men working on a truck. A woman about to grill some chicken and ribs.

OK, let’s stop for moment and let all of this sink in. One of the best players in baseball (he would go on to set the record for career saves) pitches in an All-Star Game that lasts past midnight, flies from Oakland to be back home for only a day and hangs out with two sportswriters who barely knew how to conjugate a verb?

And here is the truly incredible part – do you know where the Cubs played their next game after the All-Star Break? San Francisco. So Lee Arthur Smith traveled 4,000 miles roundtrip just to go 20 miles.

Even with an extra day now built into the All-Star Break, how many players are doing that these days. (Not to mention the part about hanging with the local yokel sportswriters.)

Like many things 35 years ago, there are some details I don’t remember and some I remember vividly. But what I remember the most was how incredible the whole experience was.

Nationally known writers would have given their right shift key to be where we were, especially because Lee Arthur was (1) a future Hall of Famer and (2) not exactly the friendliest when it came to media relations in Chicago and other places.

But with us, he was nothing but an A+. We kept thinking at some point this was all going to blow up in our face and instead, it kept getting better and better.

Little boys from down the street dropped by Lee Arthur’s house to talk about the strikeout of Mark McGwire in the 10th inning. We talked about how he had to actually bat in the top of the 13th inning (another indicator!) because the National League was out of position players, then got pulled for Mets lefty Sid Fernandez.

There was discussion about basketball being his first love, hunting, fishing and Ebenezer Baptist Church. He talked about getting the phone call that he had been drafted and then getting back on the truck and hauling more pulpwood because that was his job.

On the day we were with him — July 15, 1987 — we were the two luckiest sportswriters on Earth.

When it came time to write the story (which was published two days later), all we had to do was put our fingers on the keyboard and let it write itself. As it turned out, the story won Best Feature in the national Associated Press Sports Editors contest.

That was really nice and quite humbling. But the story wasn’t the story. Instead, the true story was the experience.

And as the years go by, the experience just seems to get better.

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