* After being released from pro ball and trying life in the real world, OF Tim Smith (Toronto, Ont.) is back on the diamond realizing what he missed and hoping for a spot on Canada’s Pan-Am roster next season in Ajax. Photo: Joe Vella/SMP Images.
By Alexis Brudnicki
MELBOURNE, Victoria, Australia – Tim Smith didn’t know what he had until it was almost gone.
Though he is completely committed to the game again now and hoping to work his way back to the affiliated side, there was a time when the 28-year-old outfielder got so entrenched with the same old baseball routine that he fell into a rut where he struggled to find the passion that once drove him.
“You get into a routine of just waking up and going to the field and that’s your life – you can take things for granted a little bit,” Smith said. “Then going home and entering the real world; working, it’s an eye opener.
“I wasn’t having fun waking up at five in the morning and grinding, working bad jobs, hard-labour jobs. It made me realize how special baseball really is, all the places we get to go and the friends you make. This time around I’m enjoying it more and being more open-minded about things.”
Getting away from the game for a period of time and taking on less desirable tasks fuelled the fire that Smith needed to get back into the swing of things.
“I started out doing landscaping and it’s miserable,” the Toronto native said. “It’s tough when you stop playing and you don’t have an education – I was doing whatever I could do to make money. They weren’t the most fun things in the world – landscaping and some drywall and painting – I did a lot of blue-collar stuff. Eventually I started getting back into baseball, working with kids at Home Run Sports, run by the Butler brothers [Rich and Rob].
“Not only did I stop playing in general but I had injuries and stuff going on so it was questionable if I could play or not, but being back at the baseball facility I started hitting a little bit and doing some stuff on the side. I got a little bit of the itch back…and I was at the right place where I could get some work in. I missed the game too much.”
After two seasons spent between multiple independent teams, with a stint in the Intercounty Baseball League earlier this year, the former junior and senior national team member has made his way down under, currently playing for the Perth Heat in the Australian Baseball League.
“It’s been good,” Smith said. “It’s been an option in the past but for whatever reason I never ended up taking it. But I’m trying to get back into the game and it’s the right place I need to be because there’s a lot of availability.
“There’s a gym, [batting] cages, and you’ve got guys who will support you and help you out and I need a little bit of time. It’s tough coming back and playing every day so the four games a week allows me to get my work in. I’ve got my feet under me a little bit more.”
Through 22 games so far with the Heat, Smith is hitting .307/.398/.480 with two home runs, two triples, two doubles, 10 walks, nine runs scored, nine runs driven in, and three stolen bases. He was also one of four Canadians – with Melbourne’s Kellin Deglan and Brisbane’s Maxx Tissenbaum and Jaz Shergill – named to the ABL All-Star Game World roster.
“It was tough,” Smith said of what he attributes his success to. “I came back for a little bit and I had some failure, and I’ve never really had too much failure. I’ve always been pretty consistent. The failure gave me the drive that I can’t just show up anymore. I’m not saying I just showed up before, but I’ve got to do things the right way…
“I was good to go where I was but I slowly got weeded out because I couldn’t stay healthy. It wasn’t me being lazy but I didn’t go out of my way to do extra things. So this time around I’m trying to eat well, go to the gym consistently, and I’m doing the little things hitting-wise. I’m being a little bit more mature this time around and it’s led to some success. The little things add up to the big things.”
One of the biggest things Smith has gotten better at over time – though still a work in progress – is overthinking his game, something he’s seen personal improvements upon with age and experience.
“That was always my biggest trouble,” he said. “Baseball is a game of failure so it’s tough mentally, it really is.
When it’s your life and your job, outside people don’t understand the wear and tear I feel at nigh [when] you’re sitting there looking in the mirror, practicing mechanics – sometimes I think, what am I doing?
“It’s hard for me to leave the game at the field and that’s what hurt me when I was younger, learning how to be mentally strong. The more mature I get, I’ve done a better job of it. Here, I hit the panic button a few times but I definitely showed up to the field the next day with a smile rather than concern, jumping right into the cage and working. I’m trusting the process a little more this time around.”
The Heat outfielder has also spent a significant amount of time in Perth offering what he’s learned where and when he can, all of sudden taking on a new role in his latest clubhouse.
“It’s weird, it came out of nowhere, being the older guy,” Smith said. “It’s something that I never really was before. I was always average age and then I realized when I got here. Guys are coming up to me without me going up to them and asking me questions.
“It makes me feel good. I was in their shoes at one time, so it’s humbling because they trust me and they’re eager to learn. I like the situation. I like trying to help and I just like talking baseball. I’m a lead-by-example guy, and if someone needs to speak about things whether it’s on the field or off the field, I’ve always been open to all conversations. It’s cool that I’ve slid into that role.”
Smith has had an array of experiences to share, with eight minor league seasons under his belt between the Texas Rangers, Kansas City Royals and Atlanta Braves organizations, plus time with the independent Winnipeg Goldeyes and Quebec Capitales, not to mention his time with the national team – highlighting his career so far.
“It’s always Team Canada,” Smith said. “Whenever I think back about baseball it’s always been Team Canada stuff. It’s a family, it really is. We can go away and play our seasons and do a lot of individual stuff, but even when we don’t see each other for a whole season, a whole year, all of a sudden we’re playing at a tournament and it’s like you just saw the guys a day ago. It’s a family and it’s special.
“We had a good little run with our senior team when I was involved. We [won] our first gold [at the Pan Am Games in Mexico] and that was special. I remember facing USA and they were expected to be there, and Cuba expected to win, but you could see the emotion from the Canadian players. With the winning and success, we have a lot of pride…
“So [my highlights] are definitely Team Canada when I’m thinking back. It’s even just hearing the national anthem – it’s not something you hear in the minor leagues and pro ball. I remember suiting up with Team Canada when I was really young, and hearing my own national anthem was special.”
Among his goals, the Team Canada mainstay is also hoping his time in Australia will help him to make a return to the senior national team roster for next year’s Pan Am Games, taking place in July on home soil.
“That’s part of the reason why I came back,” Smith said. “I know the Pan Am games are in Toronto and that’s where I’m from. I’m kind of iffy with it, roster-wise because I’ve been out of it but I want to prove I can still play and I want to give myself an opportunity. I’m not going to be sad if I’m not there but I want to at least give myself a shot and a chance, so that’s definitely something that’s on my mind.”
A member of the national squad at the last Pan Am event in Mexico in 2011 when Team Canada won its first gold in senior team history, Smith is one of the players who still remain in the game almost four years later. With several of his former teammates moving on after their Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame-worthy performance, he is excited at the thought of being a veteran amongst some new Canadian faces.
“When I first got there and I was a young guy the older guys went out of their way to make sure [I knew] we play a different style of baseball,” he said. “We play hard. We’re not jogging to first, we’re not peeling off on double-play balls, we’re sliding in hard, when you make an out you’re not going back in the dugout and throwing your helmet or going in the locker room by yourself, you’re on the rail the next pitch watching your buddy. We have that hockey-player mentality being Canadian.
“If I were to pass anything on to the next guys it’s to play like it’s your last out and be the best teammate you can be.”
Looking forward to the idea of hopefully getting back into some action in the red-and-white uniform, for at least the remainder of the off-season Smith is enjoying being in a similar environment all the way across the world.
“I feel like Canadians have a similar mindset to the Australians,” he said. “We’re pretty open people and we’re people people. We look out for others before ourselves. We’re not Team USA; not a powerhouse. Everybody knows everybody and it has that family feel, and I’m seeing that a lot here.
“Guys on other teams are real close with the guys on our team and in the minors. With other teams you get that but it’s different. They’re good friends…and it’s a lot of respect. There is a lot more respect in the smaller baseball worlds.”