WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The guys who pitch the ninth inning on sleepy March afternoons don’t normally pitch the ninth inning on chilly October evenings. And those players who come in when early March games run long, and most of the stars are long since dressed and gone, don’t often emerge as household names.
But they often earn every pitch they throw, and have fought and clawed for the chance to throw them in the first place. Right-handed reliever Chris Smith, who threw a scoreless 1 1/3 innings to finish out the Washington Nationals’ 10-5 Grapefruit League loss to the Houston Astros on Tuesday, climbed a baseball ladder slimy with broken promises and teetering on ever-shifting ground. But he climbed all the way to the majors nonetheless.
Smith, 29, has appeared in four major league baseball games and will therefore go down as a big leaguer no matter what happens next. The Nationals’ bullpen is a crowded, complicated part of their roster — so he doesn’t seem likely to break with the team out of spring training. But his is a story about the power of rejection — or perhaps, more specifically, that rejection need not have much power at all.
Smith didn’t have offers out of high school. He was 6 feet tall and “155 pounds soaking wet,” just a Kentucky kid who wanted to play every day. He went to Division II Kentucky Wesleyan, where he played shortstop and center field. When the team was desperate for pitching in his senior year, he closed and made 15 total appearances as a pitcher that season.
When his collegiate career was over, Smith prepared to take the GRE so he could apply to a sports management program at the University of Louisville. His coach at Kentucky Wesleyan told him he thought he had something left in his arm and that he should give professional ball a try. Smith agreed and headed to a 350-player workout put on by the independent Frontier League. He had to pay $65 to try out. Each team selected two players at the end of the weekend, and those two players weren’t even guaranteed roster spots — just a spring training invitation. Smith lasted through one day of cuts, then another. He got drafted. He turned a spring training invite into a regular season roster spot with the Lake Erie Crushers. He gave up a grand slam in his first outing. Coaches told him not to sweat it, that he’d be back out there soon.
“Three days later I got released,” Smith said. ” … They said they’re bringing in affiliated guys; they don’t have time to develop players. I understood. Well, I did, but I didn’t.”
He called every team in the Frontier League. He emailed everyone he could think of. Eventually he got a workout with the Evansville Otters.
“I did well. They said, ‘Yeah, we’ll be in contact,’” Smith said. “Then they were never in contact.”
He started working at a gym, processing the end of his baseball dream with “meathead workouts” that wouldn’t help him much on the mound. Then another Frontier League team, this one in Traverse City, Mich., called him. He made their team, too. He broke camp with them in 2011. He appeared in two games and he struggled.
“They released me after a 16-hour bus trip,” Smith said.
He got a call from a team in the Pecos League, a lower-tier independent league in which some people pay to play. He flew to Alamogordo, N.M. He was handed a contract in the form of the most basic of Word documents and did a double take when he read it would pay him “zero dollars.” Coaches informed Smith he would earn $50 dollars a week as a reliever or $70 as a starter. Smith opted to start.
He threw 135 pitches in his first outing. He earned a look with another Frontier League team, this one just outside Pittsburgh. He parlayed success there into a workout with the Tampa Bay Rays. He drove 17 hours on a Friday to work out on a Saturday, then drove right back. A few weeks later, the Rays called him.
“They said, ‘Hey, Chris, we decided not to go your way. Good luck the rest of the season,’ ” Smith said. ” … Click.”
Continued success earned him a chance in the Australian Baseball League, where he struck out 15 batters in a game, a league record. He was talking to an Astros scout at the time who told him the Astros wanted to sign him. Then the scout told him they couldn’t. Somehow, that scout got Smith’s name to the New York Yankees. They did want to sign him. Finally, in 2013, he made affiliated ball. Not long into his first workouts with the Yankees, a stress fracture in his forearm gave way to a full-on break. He missed the entire 2013 season.
The Yankees kept him around, and he posted a 2.98 ERA in his first full affiliated season and a 2.05 ERA in his second. The Yankees released him. His agent knew someone with the Toronto Blue Jays, and they gave him a shot. By September of 2016 he was a legitimate September call-up candidate. He hadn’t planned for that and went on a four-day cruise a few weeks after the season ended. The morning after he returned, his agent called. Something happened. A brawl — with the Yankees, of all teams. Someone got hurt.
“It was [Joaquin] Benoit,” Smith said this week, motioning to a locker a few stalls down from his in the Nationals’ West Palm Beach clubhouse. Benoit had torn his calf in the fight. On September 27, Smith got the big league call. But the Blue Jays were in a pennant race, and he never got to pitch. The Blue Jays kept him around nevertheless and brought him up last summer. On June 27, 2017, in a three-run game in front of what he remembers as a packed stadium, Smith finally reached the top of the ladder.
“I remember them opening up the gate,” Smith said. ” … I just remember looking up and seeing 55,000 people there and thinking, this is a long way from Alamogordo, New Mexico.”
Smith was a long way from Alamogordo on Tuesday, as well, when he came in to pitch those 1 1/3 innings in West Palm Beach. A scout in attendance, running down a list of pitchers he had seen in recent days, mentioned Smith as someone who “looked pretty good” — which in scout speak translates to “worth noting.” He throws 95 mph now, though he didn’t always. He looks like any one of the pitchers around him who were talked about in prospect lists or touted out of high school. None of them have been rejected as often as Smith has. He ended up on the same mound as them anyway.
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