For Smoak, the final step

Dad has been on hand through baseball milestones since age 4. That won’t change today.

semerson@thestate.comJune 5, 2008 

The call came from a Major League Baseball official last week: Did Justin Smoak want to be in Orlando, Fla., today to participate in ESPN’s draft show and walk across the stage after likely being selected among the first 10 picks?

Smoak thought it over but passed.

“I’m hanging out in Goose Creek,” he said Tuesday. “I’ve been through the draft process before, and I just wanted to spend it with my family.”

So when Smoak hears his name called, he will be able to hug his father — his first coach. At some point, he will field congratulatory calls from the other men who have helped mold him: Ray Tanner, Mike Roberts, Freddie Jordan, John Chalus and John Rhodes.

Those who have watched Smoak the past three years at USC would be forgiven for thinking he was born to play pro baseball. He has the look of a major leaguer, plays first base like a Gold Glover and obliterated program hitting records.

In reality, Smoak’s skill is a combination of natural ability, hard work and the coaching he has received since he was 4 years old. The Justin Smoak whose pro career likely will begin today is a success story of baseball engineering.

THE FATHER

Keith Smoak’s background in baseball was minimal. He hadn’t played in high school. Yet he started coaching Justin as a toddler, doing more than playing catch in the backyard.

Justin began playing organized baseball at age 4 in something called “Angel Ball,” a precursor to T-ball.

He and his father went to the batting cages almost every day. Keith was right-handed, so he taught his son to bat that way. Turns out, Justin was a natural left-hander — writing and throwing that way — so Keith told Justin to try hitting that way, too.

“And he did just as well, if not better, as he did right-handed,” Keith said. “When he did that, I said, OK, we’ve got something here.”

The father’s coaching became more intensive.

With Justin playing first base, Keith would throw balls from all over the field, intentionally throwing them away from the bag and in the dirt. They also did footwork drills. Keith taught his son, who stands 6-foot-4 today, that by moving his foot on top of the bag during the throw, he would give himself two extra inches of height.

“As a little kid, I always told him that his glove would get him on the field and his bat would keep him on there,” Keith said.

That was meant more as a warning. It ended up being true.

THE TEEN YEARS

Stratford High School baseball coach John Chalus remembers first seeing Smoak in neighborhood recreation leagues and summer camps. The kid stood out not because he was so good, but because he seemed to enjoy playing so much.

“It was just second nature to him,” Chalus said. “Everybody kind of hung around him.”

As a seventh-grader, Smoak was eligible to play for the high school team, but Chalus kept him on the junior varsity. Smoak was promoted to varsity late in his freshman season, which Chalus says was a mistake because Smoak was ready earlier.

During Smoak’s sophomore season, he struck out once in 113 at-bats. When he struck out twice as a junior, coaches ribbed him.

“It was astronomical how good his hands-eye coordination was,” Chalus said.

Smoak became a full-time switch-hitter as a sophomore.

Scouts starting noticing Smoak as a junior, when they were scouting teammate Matt Wieters. Smoak and Wieters remain good friends, and their fathers grew up together. Wieters, a catcher, is the Baltimore Orioles’ top prospect.

Smoak received schooling from another friend’s father. Freddie Jordan is the longtime coach at The Citadel, and his son Ryan was a teammate and friend of Smoak’s. The pair played a game in which they would hit grounders to each other. The game sometimes grew so fierce that Chalus had to step in.

Smoak’s competitive nature never went too far. Chalus calls him polite and laid-back.

“He’s one you’d like to clone,” Chalus said. “Not just talent-wise, but his attitude. We had some fun days with him around here.”

MAKING A LIVING

When Smoak made his middle school baseball team, he gave up other sports to, as his father put it, “play baseball for a living.”

That meant a lot of extra competition. Smoak joined a traveling team called the Diamond Devils, coached by John Rhodes, which has produced four first-round picks.

One recent summer, Smoak played in the Cape Cod League, in which elite college players compete with wood bats. The coach of Smoak’s team was Mike Roberts, the father of former USC player Brian Roberts, the Orioles’ second baseman.

“I’m sitting here watching the Orioles take extra BP before the Yankees game,” Roberts said last week during his visit to see his son play. “If (Orioles executive) Andy MacPhail would walk up to me right now and say, ‘Mike, I know you coached Justin in the Cape. (What do you think of him?)’ I’d look at him without any hesitation and say, Absolutely, take him.”

The Orioles have the fourth pick in today’s draft. Most projections have Smoak being selected in the first 10 picks; Baseball America recently projected Smoak to go fifth to San Francisco.

Smoak could have become a pro three years ago, but he told scouts he wanted to go to USC. His father thinks Smoak would have been a second-round pick by either Boston or Atlanta.

Chalus thinks one of the reasons he didn’t take the pro money was the team concept appealed to him so much.

“He didn’t want to make it a job yet,” Chalus said.

THE NEXT PHASE

Smoak hasn’t abandoned the team concept, and he doesn’t rule out returning for his senior season. But he is working with an adviser, Dustin Bledsoe of Allegiant Management in Knoxville, Tenn. (The NCAA allows players to use an unpaid adviser and retain eligibility; if the player signs, the adviser becomes his agent.)

“I’m ready,” Smoak said this week. “I’ve been here for three years, and you never know, I could definitely be back here for a fourth year. ... If you’re going to ask me if I want to sign, I can’t tell you it’s no. ... But you just never know what’s really going to happen.”

Smoak said he doesn’t see this as a momentous day in his life.

“It gets to a point (where) everybody thinks, Oh, the only reason you guys are playing is they make a lot of money playing. But the only reason I play is because I love playing,” he said. “The draft is just one day. It’s not really your career. It’s the start of your career, but it’s not the end. So you can’t look forward to the draft, you look forward to the years after the draft.”

As father and son see it, this is not the culmination of a life’s work. It’s not the magical moment that validates all those years of fielding practice and T-ball.

“It’s another steppingstone in his life and his ability to play the game that he loves,” Keith Smoak said. “This is the next level. I think he understands that. He’s ready.”

Reach Emerson at (803) 771-8676.

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