PORT ST. LUCIE – Dominic Smith was only 7-years-old when the baseball team he rooted for toppled Barry Bonds and the Giants in seven games of the 2002 World Series.
“I was a big Angels fan. That was my team – Garret Anderson, a young K-Rod (Francisco Rodriguez), Tim Salmon, Darin Erstad, Troy Percival. And Chone Figgins was my favorite player growing up,” says Smith, the Mets’ touted first-base prospect who was a non-roster invitee to spring training. “Figgins, he inspired me. He played third, short, second, the outfield. I wanted to be able to play everywhere like him.”
The 6-0, 185-pound Smith is stocky and has a sturdy build like the versatile Figgins had during his 12-year playing career, and Mets general manager Sandy Alderson calls the 21-year-old Smith “an outstanding prospect” that the organization is “very high on” entering the 2017 season and beyond.
But Smith is also one of a handful of first-round draft picks who benefitted from Major League Baseball’s Compton, Calif., baseball academy, situated in one of Los Angeles’ grittier neighborhoods. In the past, Compton was rife with crime, gang violence and drugs, famously captured in the lyrics of the gangsta rap group N.W.A’s songs. But the South Central L.A.-born Smith admits that while kids growing up in his old neighborhood still face challenges and adversity, the city overall has evolved and changed for the better.
“It is a rough area, but if you just stay your course and you’re not looking for trouble, you’ll be fine,” says Smith. “If you do look for trouble, that’s when stuff could get pretty rough out there.”
Smith, who graduated from Junipero Serra High School a few miles west of Compton, says he even projects an uptick in young African-Americans in Los Angeles and other cities taking up baseball and trying to reach the majors, and that facilities like the Compton MLB academy are a safe haven that can accelerate that process for inner-city kids. Statistically, the number of African-Americans playing baseball has dropped since the 1980s when L.A. products like Darryl Strawberry and Eric Davis were part of a sizeable African-American population dominating the majors. Whether Smith ascends to the heights reached by Strawberry and Davis – both World Series champions – remains to be seen, but the young first baseman has his sights set on becoming part of the Mets’ future youth movement, as well as being part of a new wave of Los Angeles baseball playmakers.
“He’s a dominating player already,” says Davis, 54, the former Reds slugger who was one of several former major leaguers who helped coach and mentor Smith while he was training at the Compton academy. “I hope he gets a chance to prove himself with the Mets.”
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Smith’s sports rooting interests are naturally L.A.-centric – “I’m a big-time Lakers fan, a big-time Kobe (Bryant) fan,” he says – and he is well aware of the lure and appeal of basketball for young city kids, particularly those in Los Angeles. Smith adds that he was like any kid watching sports highlights on TV growing up, being enthralled by the monster dunks or dazzling NFL plays.
“I don’t think you’ll ever be able to make basketball or football less popular – it’s tough,” says Smith. “Baseball is a slower-paced sport. But I like some of the stuff some of the younger guys in the game are trying to do, make it fun again.”
In a 2016 ESPN the Magazine feature, Nationals superstar Bryce Harper called baseball “a tired sport,” and Smith says there is some truth in Harper’s opinion, but that the game could reverse that label by embracing “having a good time, laughing and smiling” more.
“It’s going to be hard to do. When you pimp home runs, or, as a pitcher you celebrate after a strikeout, a lot of players have thin skin and they get kind of hurt about it,” says Smith. He laughs when asked if he likes to admire his own homers. “Of course!” he says.
“You see KD (Golden State Warrior Kevin Durant) out there hitting a three-pointer, shimmying on the court. Or you see (Panthers quarterback) Cam Newton in the end zone dancing – as a kid, who wouldn’t want to do that?” says Smith. “They may show a home run highlight, but to a kid, that may not be as interesting as you seeing a touchdown highlight, where they’re dancing, having a good time. I think it will be tough to really make it fun like that, but if we are able to do more exciting things, get more pro guys to go into those (inner-city) areas, invite them out to games, I feel like it will make them want to gravitate toward baseball more than basketball or football.”
Davis and Strawberry, both African-American, think that academies like the one in Compton are a stepping stone toward steering young black men toward America’s pastime, but neither former All-Star sees any uptick in African-Americans playing baseball happening overnight.
“Basketball has a global attraction,” says Strawberry, the L.A. product who went to Crenshaw High School and later starred with the Mets and Yankees, winning four World Series rings. “You need to market the academies well, market those inner-city areas, continue to bring former players to coach and work with young players.”
Strawberry, who turns 55 Sunday, says that while the hurdles he and Davis and other peers faced back in the ‘70s and early ‘80s were formidable, baseball not only gave them an avenue out of trouble, but also fostered a competitive environment so that he and other players wanted to keep excelling in the sport week to week.
“It was fun – we always knew each week we were going to play another good team, with talent across the board,” says Strawberry. “It was, ‘Who’s going to rise to the occasion?’ We knew everyone on the other team was very good.”
Davis, whose friendship with Strawberry stretches back to their L.A. childhood days, says that having an academy smack in the middle of South Central L.A. provides the type of what he calls a “safe haven” for kids. Safe havens were harder to come by during his and Strawberry’s childhood. It also doesn’t hurt that the Compton academy has, according to Davis, “phenomenal facilities.”
“When I was growing up, it was gangs, or drugs or the cemetery. A lot of times you had single mothers who had to work two jobs and didn’t have time to pick up a glove. The issue is to make baseball an option, give kids an opportunity to utilize their options,” says Davis, who won a World Series on the 1990 Reds, and who now works in player development for the Reds. “It’s a safe haven, and any time you’re talking about the inner city, it’s about safety. Not everybody is going to play in the NBA or in the majors or the NFL, but the more options you have – training and learning at an academy like the one in Compton – the better chance that you have fulfilling a career as an athlete.”
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Through Friday, Smith was batting just .185 in 13 Grapefruit League games, including one double he smacked Feb. 26 against Detroit. The more sobering stat – 10 whiffs during that same stretch. Smith was reassigned to the team’s minor-league headquarters Saturday, which was an expected move.
Alderson says Smith is projected to start the season with the Mets’ Triple-A affiliate in Las Vegas, and from there, the organization will watch to see how the lefty-swinging Smith progresses. Last year, Smith played for Double-A Binghamton and batted .302 in 130 games played, including 14 homers and 91 RBI.
While he trained at the Compton academy – which MLB vice president of Youth & Facility Development Darrell Miller says was Smith’s “home away from home” – Smith played in the RBI World Series in 2009 and ’10, winning the junior division championship in ’09.
“What the academy does – you can be 5, 6, 7-years-old and you can start coming here. I think Dominic was 9. He was playing Little League at the time. He would come to summer camps that we had. He was one of those guys that was a baseball junkie,” says Miller, a former major leaguer with the Angels. “He loved it. There are baseball opportunities for all ages. It’s for kids that really want to play, and we give them many opportunities from a competition perspective. Dominic competed against the Japanese All-Star team. He competed against some of the best in the world.”
The talent definitely impressed scouts, and the Mets selected Smith in the first round of the 2013 draft with the 11th overall pick.
“He’s an outstanding prospect. We think he’s going to be a very good player. He’s very good defensively at first base. He has an excellent bat. He’s disciplined at the plate. Power’s starting to come,” says Alderson of Smith. “And he’s a very confident, well-liked individual among his teammates. We’re very high on Dom. Whether he sees any time at the major-league level this year depends on what transpires at the major-league level during the first part of the season, as well as what he’s able to do at Las Vegas.”
There have already been several “Panic Citi” moments for Mets fans early this spring training – first baseman Lucas Duda’s back cramped up in late February. Last season Duda – who Smith trained with in Michigan during the winter – played in just 47 games due to a stress fracture in his back. Outfielder Jay Bruce has already taken grounders at first under manager Terry Collins’ tutelage this spring, and several other Mets have manned first in Grapefruit League games, including T.J. Rivera and Wilmer Flores. And captain David Wright is already sidelined with an impingement in his right shoulder.
If an emergency arises at first during the regular season, perhaps Smith could be a Plan C or D? At least Collins and Alderson can breathe a little easier knowing there is depth at the corner infield position.
“I think the Mets do a good job of making sure that they’ll be ready for the season,” says Smith, who says he plans to visit his uncle, Andre LaFleur, the UNLV men’s basketball assistant coach, while Smith is playing in Sin City. “They do a good job of giving a look at the younger guys and seeing what we can do. It’s always good to get into (spring training) games, showcase what you can do, especially at the highest level of our sport. I’m definitely just trying to take it in, just trying to have fun, enjoy the opportunity, learn from that and see what I need to improve.”
Published at Sat, 11 Mar 2017 17:39:06 +0000