Playing in Triple-A is not the goal of professional baseball players. But when your career starts like it did for relief pitcher Chris Smith, well, there is definitely something to celebrate when reaching this level.
It's been a winding road for Smith, who made his Triple-A debut with the Buffalo Bisons Sunday afternoon. And it started with his first pro game in 2010 for Lake Erie of the Frontier League in independent baseball.
"My first outing in independent ball I gave up a grand slam which was my first time throwing in front of four thousand people," Smith said. " I went to a very small Division II school where I was lucky to get maybe 200 people there. It was pretty cool to have that experience. And then I got released and it was definitely a tough pill to swallow but at same times makes everything a little sweeter."
His first Triple-A outing went much better. He was perfect in ninth, striking out the first two batters he faced. He threw 14 pitches, 10 for strikes, to close out the game for the Bisons in a 5-2 loss to Lehigh Valley at Coca-Cola Field.
"That was pretty good stuff right there for a guy that pitched independent ball for five years," Bisons' manager Gary Allenson said. "We were asking in the dugout there as he was pitching where he’d been all year. Nice addition and I’m sure with the year he’s had so far at least in Double-A and hopefully here he’ll put himself on the radar. He’s got a pretty live fastball and a real good slider from what I saw."
Where has Chris Smith been?
His baseball story starts for playing at that small Division II school, Kentucky Wesleyan College. He went undrafted and decided to tryout for several independent league teams. His first foray resulted in being released after one game.
Smith has had plenty of practice with being released, playing with three different independent league teams in 2011. In 2012 he went to Australia to play summer ball in the Australian Baseball League where he earned the notice of the New York Yankees who signed him to a minor league deal. He spent three seasons in the Yankees organization, and was released by them twice, before the Toronto Blue Jays picked him up in August last season.
His route may be non-traditional but his experiences have helped him grow as a player, beginning with his time in independent ball.
"There's no development. It's all top level so if you're not winning and you're not making the team look good, then you're not going to have a job," Smith said.
Enter the next educational phase with the Yankees.
" I think the No. 1 lesson they taught me was to control what you can control," Smith said. "So I just try to control my attitude every day. Once I release the ball out of my hand, I can’t control what happens after that. I just hope for a good result and if it’s not a good result I get the ball back and I throw the next pitch. It’s been a journey but I wouldn’t want to do it any other way. It makes a little more sweet if and when you make it."
Smith hopes to get that opportunity with the Blue Jays. In 43 appearances for Double-A New Hampshire he went 1-2 with 15 saves and a 1.89 ERA.
"This is an awesome organization," he said of Toronto. "I love it here. I feel wanted here which is a big thing for me. I feel comfortable. The organization has done nothing but talked me up and made me feel like 'Hey you’re here. Don’t worry. You don’t have to look over your shoulder if you give up a run'. That in itself makes me feel more comfortable where I can go out, relax and show my ability and hopefully somebody notices."