Kyle Smith: In the bottom of the ninth

Kyle Smith waits in the dugout. The center fielder played football and baseball at Mississippi College before coming to Butler. Photo by Jimmy Lafakis

DANA LEE | EDITOR-IN-CHIEF | delee1@butler.edu

Butler baseball head coach Dave Schrage was in his car when he picked up the phone.

It was June, and Butler had just lost to Seton Hall in the Big East semifinals the week before. Even with the loss it had been a successful season, winning nine straight to tie a school record, but now his two, three, four, and five hitters were graduating and taking half of the team’s batting average with them.

“Do you need a center fielder?” Bill McGillis asked. They go back 15 years, when McGillis was director of athletics at the University of Evansville. “There’s a kid available — a graduate transfer from Mississippi College with a year of eligibility.”

McGillis knew the center fielder’s dad, a former football coach at the University of Houston, which was why he was calling. Did Butler need a center fielder?

“I kind of chuckled,” Schrage says now. “I was like, ‘What, are you rubbing this in?’” The day before, his incoming center fielder told Butler he planned to sign with the Boston Red Sox and go pro.  

Yeah, they needed a center fielder. What’s his name?

***

Kyle Smith walks into the indoor hitting facility and music is already playing. It’s early morning, two days before Butler baseball’s Big East opener. Several track runners are stretching on the turf and when the center fielder asks, “Are y’all using this here?” before tugging the net of the batting cage, the gentle drawl of a Southern accent slips out.

Home plate is rudimentary, a piece of cardboard, essentially. Smith sets up the hitting tee, a cart of baseballs by his side. The shoelaces of his black Nikes are untied. The velcro around his batting gloves is also loose. If he closes his eyes he can see the pitcher. Beyond the mound, center field. His hands stay low by his back shoulder and both elbows pump in time to an lazy rhythm until his right leg lifts and falls… the barrel of the bat punches the ball off the tee.

He’s second on the team in slugging percentage (.543), hits (40), home runs (8) and is tied for triples (3). After the first series of the season, he was named Big East Player of the Week, going 6-for-11 with two home runs, a triple and a double. Less than three weeks later, he hit two home runs against Hofstra. The week after, he belted two home runs and a triple in the Purdue University-Fort Wayne series.

Often, Smith was so jacked up on adrenaline his trot around the bases barely lasted longer than the time it took for the ball to clear the fence. One of the coaches bought Hulk hands for a guy on the team nicknamed after the Marvel superhero, but eventually wielding the foam hands became a celebration prop for anyone who hit a home run.

“We go as he goes,” Schrage says of his leadoff hitter, and when Smith wore the hands his green fists pumped into teammates until they were elevated to the same emotional high he was.

Smith always told the guys they needed to stay level — before games, he listens to John Mayer on Mom’s Amazon music account and is calm as can be — but when the dugout sounded the way it did, who could blame him for not following what he preached?

In two months of baseball, the Hulk hands went to Smith eight times. He had quadrupled his career home runs from Mississippi College. Schrage was getting texts from scouts asking to see the center fielder play. It was his last season and he was on a tear.

“He always talks about how this is his last season of baseball,” catcher Zach Parker says. “It’s mine too. Obviously we’re all going to be super sad when it’s over. But I’m just trying to enjoy it. And he’s enjoying it too, but he’s the guy who brings up all the time, ‘It’s my last season. I’m not getting cheated.’ He talks about it all the time.”

The thing is, baseball is the crappy sort of sport where Hall of Famers fail seven out of every 10 at bats. It’s glorified as a game of failure by both those who manage to overcome it and by countless players whose names we will never know.

It’s the type of sport that will make Smith’s last year — the next month — a battle between what he wants and what baseball is willing to give him.

Photo by Jimmy Lafakis

***

He’s happy in Indianapolis. He grew up in Mississippi and didn’t expect the winter to be as cold as it was — there was a polar vortex in January — but still, he’s happy. Sometimes when it’s late at night and the roommates are home, Smith talks about how lucky they are to get four years at Butler. The past nine months, he tells them, have been the best of his life.

In the days after Mississippi College was eliminated in the NCAA South Regional Semifinal in May, Smith sent emails to several college coaches. He had a year of eligibility from a redshirt season due to a concussion playing football. (Smith played quarterback for two years at Mississippi College.) The baseball team had just won their first conference championship in program history. He was a two-time All Gulf South Conference selection. Most of the team would be returning. He could stay.

But for so much of his life, his parents nurtured a desire to travel. They went to California, where Smith stood next to redwood trees over 300 feet tall and then knew what it was like to feel small. They traveled to Washington D.C., and every other summer, stayed in upstate New York for several weeks. “If you aren’t exposed to other perspectives,” his mom would say, “how will you know anything different?”

His dad called Bill McGillis, someone he knew from the University of Houston. McGillis recommended a coach in Indianapolis — Dave Schrage.

Butler’s hitting coach, Andy Pascoe, walks in to throw batting practice. Smith and Pascoe are in here three to four days a week. Sometimes Pascoe calls out adjustments — “Lower and smoother with that leg kick,” or “You’re cheating just a bit, stay inside through it,” — but mostly the work is silent.  

The ball bounces down what would be the first base line. “Ah,” Smith grunts. “So late.” His timing is off. Just enough. It’s quiet. The track team left and so did their music. Twenty minutes later, it’s just the three of us — me, Smith and Pascoe. There’s a faint welt on the hitting coach’s left temple. The day before, Smith hit a line drive and the ball careened off the L-screen to cuff Pascoe.  

A bat rests against my leg. A few minutes ago Smith was using the same bat. I teased him when the first three pitches resulted in ground balls and now I know why. The bat is filled with sand and weighs seven to eight pounds. I try and fail to extend the bat out with my right arm, but Smith is gracious enough to mention that most of the team struggled to use the same bat earlier this season. Switching from a heavy to a light bat keeps the muscles quick, Pascoe explains.

Next to me, Smith works through his swing in slow motion, and I watch his bat follow a path carved by memory. As Pascoe breaks down the mechanics, I try to apologize, mostly joking but also serious — I feel partially responsible for Smith’s slump. In the past several games, he’s been mostly hitless.

He still texts his high school coach Shane Kelly occasional updates throughout the season, and in the last one, Kelly’s response was to stick with it. He could still bunt and play small ball. It’s only a matter of time.

“It’s not bad, bad,” Smith says. “Just a period where I’m not seeing the ball and swinging as well.”

The other day, Schrage pulled the senior aside. You don’t need to do more than you’ve already done, he said. Just be who you are.

“It was more me trying to take the pressure off him,” Schrage says. “He might not have felt it.”

Maybe it’s not a slump and maybe such a hot start would’ve been impossible to sustain regardless.

But I have to say it. It’s partly out of conscience, but mostly because I am the daughter of a superstitious, sports-loving dad who won’t let us switch seats when the Chicago Blackhawks score a goal, that I air out a four-year history of covering athletes who eventually got hurt, broke winning streaks, or in more drastic cases, both. I offer to show when I texted my editors saying I’d do this story — the day coincides with the game Smith fell awkwardly diving for a ball and was out for a week. He’s still wearing the knee brace. This comes out in one exhale and sounds a lot like an apology.

Smith laughs, which is exactly what Schrage said he’d do. He’s a rare level head in a sport that breeds superstition. A journalist and a streak of bad luck isn’t going to derail the remaining weeks he has left.

“Nah,” he says. “We’ll be alright.”

Photo by Jimmy Lafakis

***

The morning after a 5-3 road loss to Purdue, we’re sitting in the campus Starbucks. A table of health science majors study nearby. The team bus didn’t return from West Lafayette until close to midnight, but Smith is a morning person who rarely sleeps in past 9 a.m. on weekends. He believes people who rise early are the most motivated, which is why we’re sitting at a window table at 8 a.m.

His brown hair is cut short, which is new. A few days ago, Parker cut it all off using the clippers set he got for Christmas, and afterwards, Smith went to the barbers to clean up the rest. When it was long and curly, it resembled the beginnings of an afro.

On Halloween, Smith went as Will Ferrell’s character Jackie Moon from the movie “Semi-Pro,” wearing a Flint Tropics jersey and a sweatband across his forehead. He posted a picture on Instagram, and someone commented asking if the hair was real. It looked like a wig. “100 percent,” Smith replied. He used to have a moustache, but that’s gone too.

He takes his coffee black. We’re talking about wiffle ball. In Mississippi, the summers belong to baseball, and growing up Smith spent June through August traveling between the neighbor’s backyard and his own for pickup games. They played seven vs. seven. The days were always hot. They were always humid. In Petal, farther away from the city, crickets sang in the evenings.

It’s still the same game, Smith says. That’s what you’ve got to understand — wiffle ball, baseball — this whole thing is a kid’s game.

“I try to treat it like that,” he explains. “Go out there, play my best and have a good time. You look at some of the major league guys, and it’s a kid’s game. There’s no reason to get stressed or anything like that.”

He sits up in his chair a little more. There’s an edge to his voice. His words rush out faster.

“Obviously, it’s not relaxed or whatever,” Smith says. “I play to win. I still want to win. I’m still competitive, but I think sometimes people will psych themselves out and make the game bigger than what it really is.”

Baseball is also a giant mindscrew. In no other sport is time as limitless as it is in baseball, a game the MLB and NCAA are trying to speed up. The average college game lasted two hours and 59 minutes last season. But in the game’s finite actions, “There is barely enough time between pitches for all the thinking that is required,” columnist George F. Will wrote in 1990. Once a ball leaves the pitcher’s hand, hitters have less than a quarter of a second to determine if they want to swing and where to place the bat. Success is taking a round bat, a round ball and hitting it square.

No other sport tries to disguise itself as a kid’s game when the precise nature of its mechanics make it nearly impossible to do so. I think back to the metaphor Pascoe used to explain a hitter’s swing — like a Ferris wheel. There’s irony in using a children’s carnival ride to describe something physicists use to study linear and angular velocity.

“I’ve struggled with thinking too much in the past, but I’m at my best when I just go all out,” Smith says. “I just go for the ball, make the grab and trust what I’ve been doing for 18 years of my life will get me through.”

There are hints of the 1988 classic “Bull Durham” in how Smith talks about baseball. In one of the movie’s final scenes, pitcher “Nuke” LaLoosh feeds a reporter a cliche he learned in the minors: “This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.”

Smith does his best to abide by that mentality. Hitting gets simplified into two objectives: Focus on timing. Aim for center field. It’s about keeping it a kid’s game for as long as he can. He finds if he keeps trusting what he knows, things tend to swing his way.

Sometimes he wins, sometimes he loses, sometimes it rains. And sometimes a jinxed journalist from the school newspaper decides to write about you.

***

He gets hit by a ridiculous number of pitches — no, really — he’s currently sixth in the nation and was once clipped four times in three games. If a lefty is pitching, he’s in luck — balls tend to curl inside on lefty hitters and he likes to crowd the plate as much as possible.

“No pitcher is ever going to jam me once they see I’m not afraid to get hit,” he tells Parker. Getting hit then stealing second is as good as a double, Smith figures.

“Yeah, he prides himself in that,” Schrage laughs. “He understands his role is getting on base, and if it’s getting on base by getting hit, then he’s doing his job.”

It drives Smith nuts when guys on the team move out of the way. “What are you doing? It’s a free base!” He can’t help it when he sees one of his own backing down. Parker says the first thing you hear, no matter where Smith is in the dugout, is the clattering of cleats against the concrete. Click, clack, click, clack. He’s running to the front and leaning over the fence. Cupping his hands around his mouth. “Stay in the box!”

It’s a team joke now, and no one takes more crap for it than Smith. If he’s batting and an inside pitch doesn’t make contact, the dugout sings the same chorus: “Hey! Dad! Stay in the box!” But more often than not, he’s jogging down the line and handing his elbow guard to the first base coach.

It’s a strange aspect of the game to take pride in because — home runs! Launch angles! Bat flips! It’s what’s trending in baseball now, and in comparison, getting beaned is less glamorous.

The story he’s telling me now is the same one he’s told the team. Before he started kid pitch, his dad grabbed a basket of tennis balls from the garage and told a nine-year-old Smith to get into his batting stance. There wasn’t anything to swing at. Gene tossed tennis balls at him until it was clear: getting hit was OK.

“My dad was gracious enough to just get the point across and use tennis balls and not baseballs,” Smith jokes. “I feel like you could get arrested for throwing baseballs at your kid.”

Now we’re both laughing because the whole idea is one of those ridiculous only-in-baseball-stories, and it doesn’t make sense until later when I watch him play. I can’t help but picture a younger version of Smith in the backyard, crowding an imaginary home plate as tennis balls are thrown his way. He’s still the same.

Photo by Jimmy Lafakis

****

During the St. John’s game, his parents rarely sit and stand by the left field bleachers with other parents on the team. It’s over a 10-hour drive between Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and Indianapolis.

Sometimes both parents go, other times it’s just Mom, and Amy takes the family’s silver Toyota Highlander up I-59 N for 226 miles to Birmingham, Alabama, then I-65 N to Indianapolis for the weekend series. Together, Gene and Amy have traveled to games in Louisiana and South Carolina and Florida.

For as much as baseball has been a part of Smith’s life, by extension it’s part of his parents’ as well.

When Smith is hitting, Gene will often drift closer to home. Amy has a copy of the game’s roster sheet in her vest pocket in case she doesn’t recognize a player. Most of them are familiar by now. They’re the guys who have embraced her son during his final season.

There’s no team captains because Schrage doesn’t believe in them; instead, a leadership committee of four meets in his office every Wednesday. One junior. Two seniors. Then there was Smith, a graduate transfer who at the time had only been part of the program for a few weeks. Schrage debated. Smith was added to the committee.

“When things are going really well, he’s super giddy and then when sh*t hits the fan, you’ll look over and he’s — in the nicest way possible — getting in the kid’s face,” Parker says. “It’s so funny because he doesn’t swear. It’s not like he’s saying motherf**ker or anything like that. Picture being in elementary school and you getting screamed at by your dad. That’s how it is. He says it in the nicest way possible, but you can definitely tell he’s disappointed in you.”

Parker jokes that Smith will eventually transform the team into Southern gentlemen. It’s true, and later I realize that in the various times we met for this story, I never once opened a door.

When he was named Big East player of the week, Amy didn’t find out until other moms on the team texted her. “That’s just Kyle,” she says.

She likes hearing stories about how her son has become the team’s adopted dad. How when they park the bus after a road trip, the first thing players hear is Smith’s voice: “Make sure you pick up your stuff, grab your belongings, pick up the trash.”  

“That’s all Gene,” Amy says. Her husband was a football coach at schools that include Southern Mississippi, Arkansas and Mississippi State, but quit when Smith was two so he could be home more. Sometimes she thinks there are kids who lost out on a great coach. But if they did, her sons reaped the benefits.

Gene threw to all three boys when they were younger, and when Smith was home from college during breaks, they would go to the batting cage together. When Smith leaves baseball, so will they. At one point, Smith jokes his mom might miss it more than him.

“I love baseball,” Smith says. “But I understand baseball’s not something you can play for your entire life kind of thing. Even if you’re a big leaguer. I don’t want to act like I’m not going to upset. I’ve been playing baseball for 18 years of my life so it’s a big part of my life but it’s not everything.”

It’s a difficult middle ground to hold. They play 58 games in 92 days. The baseball schedule — three-game weekend series with a weekday faceoff in between — demands a level of hyperfocus players and coaches universally acknowledge as “the grind.”

“If you don’t have a good day at the park you can let it bleed over to other aspects of your life,” Smith says. “I’ve never tried to do that. It’s not easy.”

The grind — and his desire to master it — dictates his days. Hitting in the mornings, weights two times a week, practice in the afternoon. He has class at night then walks home.

They don’t talk about the grind much in the Retirement Home, which is what Smith and his roommates call their house located just off campus. It’s the perfect name for the home of a graduate student, four seniors, and fifth year senior Paul Jorgensen, a basketball player who also transferred to Butler.

“We’re about to go into our adult lives,” says Jonathan Daniel, one of Smith’s roommates. “This is it. Each and every one of us is going through a change that we don’t know how to accommodate or how to prepare for.”

There are nights in the house when one by one, they trickle into the same room, and what started as two roommates playing NBA 2K earlier in the evening ends as a 2 a.m. conversation about life and the future.

A few hours before dawn, the possibilities of what lies ahead seems just within reach, even if they don’t yet quite know what they’re grasping for.

Lately, he’s been thinking about taking a year off before finishing the second year of his MBA. He talks a lot about the West. The summer before junior year, he played for the Vail Vipers, a summer college baseball team in Colorado. On days they didn’t have games, he could hike and kayak or go cliff jumping.

Jorgensen calls Smith a “free spirit” and a “loving dude” who wears tie-dye shirts and sandals with socks. He rarely watches TV, but when asked, says his favorite show is Planet Earth. He grew up reading Sports Illustrated for Kids, but also National Geographic. When Butler hosted a lecture featuring a National Geographic photographer, Smith went because he wanted to, and was surrounded by students who needed to fulfill a graduation requirement.

He could go to Alaska, the state known as the Last Frontier, with tundra-covered basins and valleys, ice fields and tidal shorelines. He could go to Oregon. He has family in Montana. He’ll work at a local diner. Maybe a bar. He’s not picky. Anything that might let him return to that summer in Colorado.

***

There are 11 games left in a season running out of them.

His urgency becomes the team’s urgency. Many of them are underclassmen, the hourglass of their college careers barely tipped over. More than most, Smith is attuned to how fast sand shifts and how little control he has over it.

“You might be a freshman or sophomore and think, ‘I’ve got two years after this, it’s really not a big deal,’ but it is,” Smith says. “You start looking at two or three years compared to 60 to 80 years after that and you’re like, ‘Dang, I wish I would’ve done this better, or I wish I would’ve gone all out.’”

He breaks the game into moments before he has to give it all up, and I can’t stop thinking about one in particular.

It was a Friday, the first game of three against Creighton. Harrison Freed homered in the bottom of the ninth to tie the game, 7-7. But the person on second at the time who would help even the score, was Smith. A ground out from James Gargano had moved him over to second, but earlier, I watched Smith run out an infield ground ball to get on base.  It was hit hard and traveled fast. Creighton’s first baseman fielded the ball cleanly 10 feet off the base.

On air, the play-by-play broadcaster called it a “race to the bag” — Smith, the first baseman and the pitcher. It should’ve been close. It wasn’t. Smith had the first baseman beat by two steps.

I ask about it later, when we’re sitting in Starbucks. He says something about seeing the pitcher out of the corner of one eye. Wasn’t off the mound fast enough. Thought he might have a chance if there wasn’t going to be a throw.

But I saw the pitcher too. He ran as soon as the ball was hit — plenty fast enough. After the game, I watched the replay. Even if the pitcher made it to first in time for a throw, I tell Smith, he still would’ve been safe. He’s fast and we both know it.

He gives me an amused smile. It’s enough to make me wonder if I actually saw what I saw or if it’s just one of those weird things only a journalist would notice then write about.

The Starbucks morning rush is trickling in. He’s supposed to be in the hitting cage soon. We say goodbye and I walk home and I think about what Smith’s mom asked at the St. John’s game. Why Kyle? He wanted to know the same thing when we first met. Why me?

I don’t remember what I said. I’m standing in my kitchen watching the replay again, and in the seconds it takes Smith to run to first, I see it — the battle between what he wants and what baseball is willing to give him. I get similar amused smiles from my roommates who walk in, understanding but maybe not fully grasping this fascination with a single moment that never made it in the box score, in a game Butler ended up losing.

Maybe Creighton’s pitcher was slow off the mound, like Smith said. I don’t know. He was right, of course, baseball isn’t everything. But it feels like something worth holding on to.

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