Welcome to the Big Leagues

Welcome to the Big Leagues

Like many little kids who come to love the game of baseball, Will Smith ’13 started out by tossing a ball around in the back yard with his dad. From there, his path led to tee-ball and eventually to Bearcat baseball, where Will played varsity for six years, mostly as a pitcher and infielder.

Of course, he dreamed of one day playing in the majors. “I did dream about it,” Will admitted. “I think every baseball player who wants to play in the MLB dreams of it, but I was focused more on college than on pro ball. Even if I’d had an offer, I would have turned it down to go to college.”

Will moved behind the plate when he joined the U of L Cardinals. “I think I had some natural talent behind the plate,” he said, “but I really leaned on three seniors to show me the ropes. I learned a lot from them.” In some ways, Will realized, his lack of experience may have been a blessing in disguise. “I didn’t have any bad habits from catching my whole life, so it was easy for me to learn.” And then there was Cardinal pitcher Zack Burdi, who could throw 100 miles per hour. “Scouts could see that I’m catching the best arm in the country in college,” he said. “They see that I can handle that kind of pitching at a high level and succeed at it.”

Scouts started taking a serious look at Will during his breakout junior season. The buzz began to build in local sports media in late spring: along with pitcher Burdi and outfielder Corey Ray, Will’s prospects for the draft were starting to look pretty good.

Something definitely clicked during his junior year. Near the end of the season, Will was batting .382 with seven home runs and 43 RBIs—a big step up from his sophomore year, in which he hit .242 with two home runs and 15 RBIs. He was also named to the 2016 American Baseball Coaches Association Gold Glove Team, making him the first Cardinal player to earn the defensive honor.

“I can’t think of one thing I did differently during that year,” Will said, “but I was really dedicated to the process of getting better, and I knew I could do it. Once it started rolling, it just kept rolling and I was able to keep playing well.”

Eventually, Will knew, that hard work would pay off. “I knew that if I worked hard and got better that I could be drafted in my junior or senior year. That’s what I tried to do: work really hard and put myself in a good position to get drafted.”

Will’s dream came a lot closer to reality on June 10, when he was selected in the first round of the 2016 MLB Draft—picked 32nd overall by the LA Dodgers. It was not only a big night for Will, but also an historic night for U of L baseball, who saw two other players picked in the first round and another in the second.

Despite the excitement, Will says that it wasn’t hard for him to stay focused. “My freshman and sophomore years, I had seen guys going through that same process and learned from how they dealt with it. I think we did a good job of staying focused and leaving the draft and all that separate from playing our games. Also, my parents were a big help. My dad always said, ‘Don’t get the big head. Just stay focused, play your game, and let everything work out.’”

Will says that the next few weeks were kind of a whirlwind. “After my last college game, I flew out to Arizona to sign my contract. They sent me to Ogden, Utah, to play a short season. I was there for a week or so to play a few games. I played pretty well and was promoted up to Low-A ball in Midland, Michigan. It’s been a good couple of months.”

Shortly after we spoke, Will was promoted again to the High-A Rancho Cucamonga Quakes. With the Quakes, Will found himself once again playing infield—something he hadn’t done since his years with the Bearcats.

It’s been a lot of change in a short period of time, but Will doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who gets flustered easily. In his combined 29 games with the Ogden Raptors and Great Lakes Loons, he went 30 for 109 (.275) with one double, two home runs, and 12 RBIs.

In an August 13 article on the Think Blue LA website, Quakes coach Drew Saylor said, “I see a lot of versatility in Will. You look at him behind the plate—he’s got tremendous hands, unbelievable release, extremely strong arm—and then you put him in the middle infield you’d think there might be a little tardiness with the feed but that’s not it … To be able to have that type of versatility I think is a tremendous advantage for him in his career and also to our organization, as we preach versatility.”

Right now, Will’s having a great time playing the game he loves. He says he’s grateful for everything he learned at KCD and for the support of the Bearcat community. Mostly, he says, he’s focused on playing the best game he can. “I love competing and playing the game. I’ve always wanted to be the best I could be at it, and it’s enough for me to keep chasing that dream of playing MLB. The most exciting thing is that I’m playing a game I love and that I’m getting paid to play it. My job is to play baseball. It’s a lot more fun than sitting at a desk all day.”

photo courtesy of University of Louisville Sports Information