Smith thriving despite late switch to baseball
Converted hockey player turning heads in Rangers system
FRISCO, Texas -- Here's something opposing pitchers won't like to hear: Tim Smith still considers himself better on hockey skates than the baseball field.That may be hard to believe since Smith is hitting .309 this season with the Double-A Frisco RoughRiders. Meanwhile, he has become a well-regarded outfielder in a loaded Rangers farm system. A converted hockey player, Smith grew up playing center in his native Canada. He did not begin focusing on baseball until he reached high school. Due to his lack of experience, people project great things in his future. Frisco manager Mike Micucci describes Smith as a "young" player in baseball years regardless of what his actual age is. That means his 23-year-old outfielder should continue to blossom as he gains more experience. "I think college was kind of like a high school season for me for most Americans," Smith said. "Because of the comparison of playing time and experience, they're a few years ahead of us. I'm shaping myself up for what type of player I want to be and what's going to work best for me." Hockey helped Smith become a better hitter. He has talked with plenty of scouts who say that his puck-handling skills have improved his hands at the plate. It's something Micucci has noticed, too. "We do describe him as a handsy-type guy," he said. "He's got quick hands and quick bat coming through the zone. It's just basically how his swing works and what his thought process is to make his swing work. All the good hitters have good hands." When he changed sports, Smith became part of a growing segment of Canadian athletes who are turning to baseball. "I grew a love for it, and once you get attached to it, it's the only thing you want to do," he said. "Early on, baseball was something to do in the summertime, but in the '92 and '93 World Series, it caught on in Canada, and baseball grew from there. I feel like I'm representing my country because there's so few of us. It's special." There are 13 Canadian-born players on Major League rosters this year, including Ryan Braun of the Brewers, Justin Morneau of the Twins, Russell Martin of the Dodgers, Rich Harden and Ryan Dempster of the Cubs, Joey Votto of the Reds and Jason Bay of the Red Sox. Smith honed his hitting with his friend, Wahhab Seddiqui, when both would hit after school for hours at an old baseball field. The field didn't have any fencing, so the two used landmarks -- a tiny fence in left field that protected houses, a piece of concrete in center field and a building in right field -- as fences. "We thought it was big league material, but now it's a regular old field," Smith said. "The fences were 250-300 feet away, but it felt like it was 400." As kids taking batting practice in a neighborhood will do, they broke a few windows and had to run from security guards. Smith and Seddiqui took turns throwing their 10 baseballs to each other. If they hit a ball onto the roof of the school, Smith would climb up a pole attached to the building and retrieve it. As they grew older, Smith and Seddiqui attended tryout camps, where they snagged a few baseballs every time. Before long, they had about 40 for their batting-practice sessions. Smith and Seddiqui needed every baseball they could find, too. "There was this group of kids that we didn't get along with for whatever reason," Smith said. "They had nothing to do with baseball, but they just loved to take a ball or two. So when we were in the cage, there would be a few balls in the outfield, and they'd just grab them. We chased these kids on a 20-minute run around our neighborhood. They didn't take any more after that." Seddiqui ended his baseball playing career after high school, but Smith was selected in the 21st round by the Mets in the 2004 First-Year Player Draft and 17th round by the Brewers the following year. Both times he chose college baseball over the Minor Leagues. Smith attended Midland (Texas) College, where he set a school record for career batting average (.459), on-base percentage (.547) and slugging percentage (.736). He moved on to Arizona State University, a highly regarded Division I baseball program, and earned a new role. "For the team to work properly, I had to hit in the leadoff role, something I'd never done," Smith said. "I was accepting of the change. I only hit three home runs, so my power numbers were way down. I was playing a small-ball game. But ultimately the small-ball stuff has helped me see what I'm going to see in pro ball." Despite hitting .333 for the Sun Devils, Smith was not drafted until the seventh round of the 2007 First-Year Player Draft when his name was called by the Rangers. "I think there's a lot of things that -- come Draft time -- like tools that can be overlooked," Micucci said. "There's his makeup, heart and attitude that we want as Rangers." He said that before Frisco's game against the Springfield Cardinals on Thursday. A couple of hours later, Smith lowered his shoulder and barreled over Cardinals catcher Steven Hill, who was blocking the plate. Hill dropped the ball, and Smith walked back and touched home plate safely. The RoughRiders were already ahead by several runs. Maybe that's his hockey toughness still coming through. When Smith goes home during the offseason, he still plays with a few of his buddies on frozen lakes or rinks. "As long as I get some teeth missing, I'll be happy," Smith said. "Battle wounds." He then bares a smile that isn't missing any teeth. "Naw, I'm just kidding," Smith said. "I don't go over the edge."
Daniel Paulling is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.