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Surprising humility in rookie star



Published: Fri, September 7, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



That St. Louis Cardinal rookie Bud Smith should pitch a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres should be story enough, but when he talked after the game about facing the legendary Tony Gwynn, he referred to him as "Mr. Gwynn." Considering the reputation for arrogance so many professional athletes betray, finding one who is respectful and a little bit humble is like finding a diamond buried on a beach.

Smith wasn't even on the Cardinals' roster when the season opened in April. He was called up in June when the team had to deal with a number of player injuries, but after his debut on June 9 Smith was sent back to the minors 10 days later.

It took another month before Manager Tony La Russa called the pitcher back to St. Louis again.

Smith, whom one club official described as a "delightful young man," graduated from St. John Bosco, a Catholic high school in Bellflower, Calif., where he played baseball and football, and attended Los Angeles Harbor Junior College before joining the Cardinals farm system.

Minor league history: He was the youngest pitcher to begin the year in the Class-AA Texas League, and became just the third pitcher in Texas League history to throw two no-hitters -- of the seven-inning variety -- in a season. Winning a minor-league high 15 consecutive decisions, Smith was selected as the league's Pitcher-of-the-Year.

But it's unlikely he'll be heading back to Texas anytime soon -- unless it's to pitch against the Houston Astros.

Following baseball tradition, pitchers closing in on no-hitters are supposed to be left in contemplative isolation. No one, goes the conventional wisdom, should talk them. But Smith, who instead needed to chat to take the pressure off, struck up a conversation with home-run king Mark McGwire. The two men -- seasoned veteran and young rookie -- commiserated with each other because they were both for 0 for 3 against Padre pitchers that day. After the game's final out, it was McGwire who was first to embrace his teammate for his outstanding effort.

Lost in St. Louis: While it usually takes a while for first year players to feel part of their teams, Smith has already become one of the favorites. The likeable newcomer took quite a ribbing because he got lost going to the airport before the Cardinals recent roadtrip and the team's charter aircraft had to be held while they were looking for him.

Before the no-hitter, however, the plane might just have left without him.

Smith's starting against the Padres in San Diego provided an opportunity for his mother, stepfather, and a contingent of his high school buddies to see the rookie lefthander pitch close to home. They were more than rewarded for the 110-mile drive.

One season doesn't make a career, and even a no-hitter can get buried in the record books, but Smith is the kind of athlete you'd like to see succeed. A guy that brings his mom to the ballpark and wins a no-hitter for her deserves to be more than a footnote in the history of baseball.




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