WHEN YOUR oil wells are on fire, you call the company founded by a flame-eating legend named Red Adair. Before he passed on to the big fire lake in the sky, Adair helped cap the biggest oil-fire outbreak in history: Kuwait, where thousands of wells were set ablaze by Iraqi troops fleeing from Desert Storm.

When a major league baseball team's payroll is on fire and a tough arbitration hearing looms, you call Tal Smith Associates.

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Smith has been juggling baseball numbers for a half-century. He cut his teeth on decimal points between his junior and senior years at Duke, keeping the major league fielding stats and all the minor league numbers for The Sporting News.

Smith kept swimming upstream, devouring the numbers, learning from them, applying them, shaping them into winning baseball players and teams. Tal fast-tracked all the way to general manager of the Houston Astros, where he also proved his ability as a grass-roots baseball man. When his 1980 team won the National League West title - the 'Stros lost to the Phillies in the all-time best NLCS - Smith was voted National League Executive of the Year.

Tal was a popular GM with very few enemies. Unfortunately, one of them was Astros owner John McMullen, who fired his NL Executive of the Year.

Tal Smith Associates was born soon after. Tal took along his young PR director, Ed Wade, as part of a young stable of SABR-rattling numbers crunchers that included some of the best minds to ever morph the arcane meanderings of statistical probabilities into runs, hits, errors and wins.

Soon, as many as 23 of the 30 ballclubs were using TSA to prepare and defend against, if necessary, the arbitration cases filed by players using a management-hated, lose-big-or-lose-really-big process open to players with 3 years of major league service time. Arbitration is Marvin Miller's gift that keeps on giving.

Agent Casey Close is scheduled to present Ryan Howard's $10 million 2008 salary filing to an arbitration panel in Tampa 13 days from now. The Phillies have countered with what GM Pat Gillick considers a more appropriate figure of $7 million.

Tal Smith doesn't win them all, but he is so good in goal that only the toughest cases wind up going to a hearing. Once in a hearing, Tal's winning percentage is roughly .666. That'll win a lot of pennants and save a lot of millions.

Most agents persuade their clients to settle before an arbitrator has to pick either the high or low figure rather than risk the ordeal a hearing can be.

Tal Smith is Winston Wolf. Ghostbusters. The Royal Mounties.

Retired super-agent Dennis Gilbert locked dollar signs with Smith many times over the years and once said this about his longtime adversary:

"Tal Smith is not a good salesman, but a great salesman. He is very eloquent in his articulations, both in convincing a team that he should present their cases and then convincing the arbitrator what he wants him to believe."

Onetime Lenny Dykstra agent Alan Meersand provided an echo of what Close can expect in a Howard hearing with a 2008-high $3 million gap at stake:

"Look at his track record. Tal is always very prepared, with detailed printouts that look like they're going to stretch from Maine to California. Sometimes it's humorous, hearing some of the strategies he comes up with to try to win a case, but . . . he never gets personal against a player. I respect that. If I were a club, I would hire him."

So Ryan Howard won't have to sit there and listen to anything remotely personal. No weight or age projections. No belittling his prolific strikeout pace or snail references. Nothing that makes Ryan sound greedy or like a

player trying to break the bank in his third full season. Smith never attacks the player's number. He defends the ballclub's number instead.

But Howard might have to sit through an exhaustively intricate dissertation on the imperative of solid defense. In the past, Smith has also shot holes in agents arguing the value of a client's glove. Ed Wade was involved in a number of them.

"You can rank players statistically in chances per game and so on," Wade said during his GM tour here. "My rebuttal in doing arbitration cases with Tal when somebody talked about a guy's defense was, 'Let's see the Gold Glove votes.' In my opinion, the opinion of the managers and coaches . . . are, by and large, a better indicator of defensive prowess than the statistics . . . "

Ironically, Dave Montgomery had an oblique role in the use of designer stats to evaluate every phase of the game, from arbitration to pitch counts to amateur bonuses. It is an involved story, so this is an abridged version.

When Monty first went to work for the Phillies in 1971, he had a Penn fraternity pal named Steve Mann who wanted to develop better ways of interpreting and using baseball statistics than the traditional BA, RBI, LOB, ERA tables. Using ballclub scoresheets provided by Montgomery, Mann developed the Run Productivity Average stat that became the Rosetta Stone of an evolving baseball cyber world. Mann sent proposals to every big-league GM. He heard back from only one of them . . .

Astros GM Tal Smith hired Mann, making him the first stat guru to work for a ballclub fulltime since the Brooklyn Dodgers hired a genius named Alan Roth.

To punt, Casey, you stand about 13 yards behind the center. Tal comes off the edge like a

Ryan Howard line drive. *