SWIFT MOVE TO THE BIG
[subtitle] Mallex Smith’s path to big-league had humble hometown start [/subtitle]
By St. Clair Murraine
Mike Smith and his wife, Loretta, never had any pipedreams about their son making it into the major leagues, although he always seemed to standout among his peers as a youth baseball player.
But he is in the bigs now, although he didn’t see it coming so soon. And, certainly not as swiftly as it transpired.
It’s been two weeks now since Mallex Smith made his breakthrough appearance as a rookie outfield prospect for the Atlanta Braves. The 22-year-old, whose baseball career started before his 10th birthday, has given Atlanta’s fans plenty to cheer about.
And, of course, there is excitement in Tallahassee just knowing that a hometown kid has reached the pinnacle of professional baseball.
Smith and his wife are calmly taking it all in just like they did when they watched their son circle bases or made big plays in the outfield on travel and city-league teams.
“Where he is right now is just an opportunity; just a small door opened,” said Mike Smith, his joy barely audible through his mild-mannered tone. “We are excited about the past week.”
The week has been an incredible one for the Smiths. In his first game a day after the Braves called him up from their Triple-A Gwinnett affiliate, Smith belted a base hit. He didn’t slow down through the next three games, even getting a clutch hit that helped the Braves win one of three games against the Dodgers last week.
In his previous start before facing Los Angeles in Atlanta, Smith had a two-out, run-scoring single that helped to lift Atlanta over the Florida Marlins.
It was convincing. At least for Braves’ manager Fredi Gonzalez.
“He had a tough game offensively until that point,” Gonzalez said during a postgame interview. “But the kid battles and he’s got confidence in himself.”
Smith’s path to the major leagues started when he was drafted in the fifth round by the San Diego Padres out of Sante Fe College in 2012. Two years later, he was traded to Atlanta.
Major league teams actually started to develop interest in Smith’s talent when he played for Rickards High School. The interest was lukewarm, though, because Smith split his time at Rickards playing football.
By the time he reached 11th grade, he’d decided that his best shot of playing professionally in either sport would be in baseball.
His trip up to the major league happened in whirlwind fashion.
“It was a lot of emotions running through,” Smith said. “My mind stuck to business a lot so it went from being excited to happy, business and I hadn’t even made it up there yet. I was just packing my bags in Norfolk.”
The Braves called him up from their Triple-A Gwinnett affiliate immediately after he’d finished a game against the Norfolk Tides and was packing his gear. Within hours he was in the lineup as a replacement for Ender Inciarte, who was moved to the 15-day disabled list with a hamstring strain.
He got his first hit in his second at-bat in the Braves’ 6-4 victory over the Nationals. It was bitter-sweet, as Smith suffered a small cut high on the left side of his nose while attempting to steal in the fourth inning.
Getting his first major league hit off Max Scherzer was huge. He refused to get caught up in the moment, though.
“I’m here every day, waking up and trying to bring my best to the team so the team has the best opportunity to win,” he said.
Smith has always been bubbling with confidence since he was a T-baller in Tallahassee. He loved winning at all cost — even in a game to reach the top flight of stairs, is how he explained his tenacity.
“I just don’t like to lose,” Smith told the Capital Outlook in an early morning interview last week. “I want to compete and I want to beat the other guy bad; no matter what sport.”
He was always prepared, too. He developed a penchant for hard work at an early age. His work ethic never waned, said Steve Givens, one of four coaches who worked with Smith during four seasons of travel ball.
Nothing was ever too hard for the left-hander to try, Givens said.
“He didn’t always understand what he was doing, but he was very interested in learning,” Givens said. “He was certainly very coachable and a very fun-loving kid.”
“He just was a hard-working energetic player.”
Smith is getting a lot of praise these days for his speed on the base path and his hustle from the outfield. Jim McNeill saw all that when Smith was making big plays on his Levy Park team.
“He was very much a competitor in the competitions that we held at practice,” McNeill said. “He won any races that we ran and he always had the best time.
“I’m so excited for his success. Anybody that ever coached Mallex knows he is just a wonderful young man.”
That’s the way that Smith and his three other siblings were molded by their parents. They instilled the benefit of work ethic that Mallex is demonstrating. It worked for the others, too.
Michael, Jr. was a successful football player at the University of Arkansas. Sisters Loreal and Louren also had successful collegiate track and field careers.
“We knew if you are going to be very good at something it was going to take sacrifice and hard work,” Mike Smith said. “We knew our kids were blessed with some talent, but we also knew there are kids all over that are blessed with talent.
“We always told them they have to work harder and when they competed to leave it all on the field.”
The Smiths made attending church a part of bringing up their children in a wholesome environment. Their pastor, Rev. R.B. Holmes, of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, grew especially fond of Mallex.
Holmes has already seen at least one of Smith’s games live.
“I am so proud of Mallex,” Holmes said. “He has a great future. It is humbling and gratifying to see a church member excel in professional baseball and more importantly a good man.
“Mallex is blessed with strong parents, siblings and grandparents who cover him with prayers and positive encouragement.”
Baseball being as cyclical as it could be when it comes to rookies, Smith isn’t looking too far ahead.
But he was optimist about longevity, leaving that up to his ability to play well.
“I can only control what I can control,” he said. “I can’t worry about what the outcome of my results might be,” he said. “All the other stuff is out of my control so there is no need for me to worry about it.”