Former LSU standout shortstop Josh Smith eagerly climbed into his vehicle Wednesday for an unexpected 715-mile drive home to Baton Rouge.
That’s where he’ll remain for the foreseeable future with his professional baseball career on hold with all major and minor league activity suspended since March 12 by the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s not fun to hear about all of this,” Smith said in an interview Tuesday. “It’s not just about baseball. It’s the whole world trying to figure out what’s going on, everybody helping everybody. To hear this news was tough but you can’t control that. All I can control is working harder and be smart about my decisions.”
Smith got a first-hand account of the virus when he and teammates were placed in quarantine during the first month of what was supposed to be his first full training camp in Tampa with the New York Yankees organization.
He was a second-round selection (67th overall) by the Yankees in last June’s draft. He batted .324 with six doubles, three homers and six stolen bases in his first minor league action last summer with the team’s Class A affiliate (Staten Island) in the New York-Penn League.
Smith believed he was off to a solid start this spring and was targeted for a promotion to the Yankees high-A affiliate in Tampa. Then, the organization discovered two players in its minor league system tested positive for coronavirus, eventually sending 170 players and staff home.
Smith, who along with two teammates had rented a temporary home for spring training, tried adapting to a world without baseball during a 12-day quarantine.
“You’ve got to be a little creative,” he said. “We’ve done in-home workouts, throwing the ball in the front yard. One of my roommates is a fisherman. He had the idea of hooking the ball to a line, hitting it and we wouldn’t have to go get it. It’s definitely unique, something I’ve never experienced. We’ll get through it.”
Smith has waited on his dream of reaching the major leagues this long, he figures what’s another couple of months when major league baseball hopes to resume its operations and eventually conducts a season.
Smith, also a former Catholic High star, realized a pair of life-long objectives when he was picked by the Yankees. Not only was the 5-foot-10, 175-pounder drafted for a second time, but he went to the club of his choice where he signed a deal reportedly worth $976,000.
“When you get drafted by the Yankees, it was a dream for me and my family,” Smith said. “I got to put on the pinstripes and sign the contract. That was just a dream come true. All of the hard work my family’s put in for me, that was really cool. To see that come into existence was awesome.
“Once I got to Staten Island to play, it was just like I was a little kid again. I was enjoying the game, just playing baseball and now it’s my job and getting paid. What better could you ask for?”
Smith admits to having been prudent with his money with only two major purchases: an engagement ring for his fiancée’ and a used 2015 GMC Yukon.
His focus, though, has been strictly on baseball and trying to work his way up through New York’s organization.
Smith arrived in Staten Island on the heels a successful career at LSU which ended in a sweep at the hands of Florida State in the NCAA super regionals at Alex Box Stadium. In his last game with the Tigers, his eighth-inning leadoff double sparked a two-run rally to tie the game at 4-4 before LSU lost 5-4 in 12 innings.
Smith wound up hitting .313 with 16 homers, 94 RBIs, 33 doubles and 25 stolen bases in 31 attempts over his Tigers’ career which was curtailed by a back ailment in 2018. His final season included a team-high .346 batting average, 89 hits, 47 doubles, 9 homers, 41 RBIs and 20 stolen bases in 24 tries.
“In high school, I always wanted to go to LSU no matter what anyone offered me scholarship wise,” Smith said. “That was my dream and to this day, I think that’s the best decision I’ve ever made. Looking back, I don’t think there’s an amount of money that I would have skipped to go to LSU. It’s prepared me for not only baseball, but just life in general.”
Smith recalled the rollercoaster start to his minor league career, going 2-for-2 and safely reaching base four times with a pair of walks in his debut.
“I thought, `OK, this ain’t bad’,” Smith said. “My first hit was pretty cool. I remember my time at LSU as a freshman playing in the (2017) College World Series. I tried to slow down my breathing and tried to relax. That’s what I did. LSU prepared me so well, playing in front of those crowds and really not letting the moment get too big for you.”
Smith realized there would be greater challenges ahead and maintaining an even-keel approach would be tantamount to his success.
He recalled not getting a hit for the next three or four games following his opening-game fireworks, before settling into a more consistent July and August.
Following the all-star break, Smith couldn’t get to the end of the regular season fast enough with less than five hits in his final 40 plate appearances.
“That’s how baseball is, and you have to accept it,” he said. “What I’ve learned since I’ve been here, if you’re doing well try to stay the same. If you’re doing bad, try to be the same guy.”
Smith played in 33 games for Staten Island and accrued 111 plate appearances with 25 walks and 17 strikeouts. His .324 batting average was second on the team and his play at shortstop was exemplary with a .935 fielding percentage – just six errors in 92 total chances – to go along with turning 11 double plays.
“You’re confident every day you see him in the lineup,” Staten Island manager David Adams said of Smith. “To me, he’s just a guy that’s very intelligent and he’s a guy that’s going to be around for a long time because he does things the right way.”
While strikeouts and errors are part of the game and don’t deter him, Smith said he’s always made a concerted effort to bring a passionate approach to the field he traced to his father Scott.
“He wasn’t a big baseball player growing up,” Smith said of his dad. “But he pushed me in certain ways that if I slacked that I would upset him. I never wanted to do something that I controlled like running down the first base line that would upset my dad.
“That always kind of pushed me. I credit him for kind of giving me my wits on the baseball field. To this day, he’s my best coach. He didn’t play that game that long, but he knows what kind of player I am, and if I need anything, I go straight to him.”
Smith’s taste of spring training was brief but not without some positive takeaways.
He recalled getting to work with coaches from the Yankees big club and even got to play in two to three games with the major league team without getting any plate appearances.
During his collegiate career, Smith played both third base and shortstop before being projected as a second baseman going into last year’s draft.
Smith played in 25 of 33 games at shortstop in last summer’s short season for Staten Island, but remains open to playing any position for the opportunity to get on the field.
“I’ve played nothing but shortstop and that’s their goal with me right now,” Smith said. “They’ve given me opportunities at shortstop, and I have to take advantage of those. If somebody beats me out, then so be it.
“There’s a lot of responsibility that comes with being in the New York Yankees organization. A lot of people have expectations for you and (LSU) coach (Paul) Mainieri did a real good job of preparing me and other teammates for that. The ultimate goal is to hopefully get up to 162 (major league games), so I have a lot more work to do.”