Mom puts Mallex Smith on regiment built for speed
By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook staff writer
It wasn’t the most unusual play in the major leagues, but there is still some buzz about the way Tampa Bay leftfielder Mallex Smith made a putout in a run-down near third base.
More than anything else, the speed that Smith exhibited to get from his position to the infield is still making conversation around the league.
But as far as Smith’s mother, Loretta, is concerned there was nothing surprising about the way her son hustled to put out Cincinnati’s speedster, Billy Hamilton near third base on a steal attempt from second.
Unknowingly Loretta Smith started to prepare her son for such likelihood since he was a teenager playing youth baseball in his hometown Tallahassee. She was more frustrated than anything else, though, when she decided it was time to teach her son how to run.
She recalled that Mallex was at a summertime baseball camp when she’d seen enough of him trying awkwardly doing running drills.
“For me, it was embarrassing,” she said. “He had absolutely no form. He just ran terribly.”
Eleven years later, Smith is considered one of the speediest players in the major league.
Loretta Smith’s displeasure with her son’s running as a 13-year-old in a baseball camp is understandable. She ran on the high school level and later coached at Lincoln and Rickards High schools.
She developed a training regiment for Mallex, working with him during his lunch break when he attended Rickards. It took awhile, but she began to see encouraging improvements in Smith’s running.
She understood that she had to be patient, though.
“Your form can’t change overnight,” she said. “It’s just repetition.”
He became almost as good at running as his two sisters, who became top-flight collegiate runners. Loreal and Lauren earned scholarships to run for North Carolina A&T and the University of Florida, respectively.
Mallex started playing college baseball at Santa Fe Junior College in Gainesville. It provided the perfect situation for Lauren to take him under her wings with assistance from Gators track coach Mike Holloway.
Smith still returns to Gainesville every off season to work with Holloway. The dividend is obvious more than ever since Smith’s recent return to the Rays, following a brief stay in the minor leagues.
While his mother had everything to do with his speed, Smith attributed advice from his father for his all-around play. He was heading off to junior college when his father, Mike Smith, suggested he keep a log of every aspect of his game.
He still does today.
“It was for him to not just be a player of the game but be a student of the game so that he could understand his profession,” the older Smith said. “Not just play baseball.”
The advice his father gave him has allowed him to develop a habit of controlling what he can to improve. Rays manager Kevin Cash has often praised Smith’s work ethic.
His consistency is the result of trying to play worry free.
“Focusing on that allows me to keep my head clear and not worry if I’m going to go up or down,” Mallex said. “As long as I’m trying to be the best on the field, I have a lot to worry about.”
Smith, who went to Tampa Bay by way of Seattle in a trade from Atlanta where he started his big league career almost two years ago, was called up when Kevin Kiermaier suffered an injury. Kiermaier is expected to be out for at least two months.
Smith immediately went on a hitting streak that reached 12 games after being called up. Two of those hits came against the Reds last week. His speed on the base patch has also impressed manager Kevin Cash.
Smith is one reason that the Rays are contending for the American League East lead near the midway mark of the season, Cash said.
Of course, Smith’s running is a huge asset.
“When you’ve got Mallex on third base it opens up some situations for that guy on first because everybody is a little bit hesitant to release the ball because he (Mallex) can score or walk home,” Cash said. “That’s the kind of game-changing thing that he brings to us.”
Smith’s consistency makes him the catalyst of the Rays’ offense.
“We can be a pretty dynamic offense with him performing that way,” Cash said. “I know he is not going to hit a home run every night and get on base all the time. The way he approaches the bats is pretty impressive.”
Challenging pitchers is becoming routine for Smith.
“I’ve got a job to do just like them,” he said during a telephone interview. “It’s putting the best on the bat. I’m going to bring what I have for the day (and) hopefully it’s enough to beat the guy (pitching).