One shot was all Smith needed

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 11, 2004

Suffolk News-Herald

All Donnie Smith ever needed was a chance. Just in time, he got one.

After spending 31 innings on the Old Dominion University mound in his first two years as a Monarch, the Portsmouth native journeyed north to the Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League over the summer of 2003. Pitching for the Lehigh Valley squad, he went 5-0, striking 60 and allowing just 12 walks and three runs for the entire season, recording a miniscule ERA of 0.66.

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Now in the national spotlight, Smith was suddenly in the enviable position of being elevated all the way to the big leagues.

But let’s set things up first, shall we?

Though he was a common sight throughout Cradock Little League competition during his younger years, Smith spent virtually all of his time behind the plate; until playing varsity ball at Norcom High School, he was a catcher. As a president, he finally got to see the plate from the other side; he made All-Eastern District as both a pitcher and a catcher.

Still, Smith, who also lettered in swimming and wrestling at Norcom, was more concerned with his education than athletic career; a 3.4 GPA won him an academic scholarship to ODU, where he decided to major in criminal justice. But when he got there, Smith noticed that Needham Jones and Steve Warren, former American Legion ball teammates of his, were trying out for the Monarch nine. Seeing them, he decided to try things as a walk-on.

At tryouts, the coaches told Smith to show his pitching skills before catching, so his arm wouldn’t get tired. He reared back, and gunned a fastball into the catcher’s mitt.

The radar speed gun read 91 miles an hour. Smith was told to sell his catcher’s gear.

However, his success didn’t carry over into the regular season; appearing in just five innings, he allowing six hits and struck out seven for an ERA of 9.00. His second season was more of the same; 26 innings, a 0-1 record, and 31 hits against 19 strikeouts.

Then he made the trip that would change his life.

Smith became a member of the Lehigh Catz (yes, that’s the correct spelling), and met coach Dennis Morgan. &uot;He taught me about the mental aspect of pitching,&uot; Smith said. &uot;He taught me not to just throw hard, because I wasn’t going to overpower everybody.&uot;

Instead, he learned mind games. &uot;If you throw the first three outside, that’s what the batter’s going to be looking for on the fourth, so bust him with an insider. If you throw a few curves, try to shoot a fastball by him. I learned to hit my spots.&uot; That’s quite the understatement; his achievements made him the league’s top pitcher and sent him back to school ready to ace through the bullpen.

Another new coach was waiting for him; new Monarch assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Jim Tyyrell, himself a former Monarch and minor-leaguer. &uot;On the first day of practice, I could tell he had a lot of potential,&uot; Tyyrell said of Smith. &uot;He had a really great arm, but he had some mechanical issues.

&uot;We talked a lot about what it feels like to do different things. He started off with a really high arm slot (meaning that Smith had a tendency to release his pitches with his arm high above his head, nearly straight), so we tried to bring it lower. Your arm’s not made to stay straight while pitching, and he needed to keep his head still so his arm wouldn’t hit it. He was very receptive, and his velocity picked up.&uot;

And up and up and up. Smith recorded the Colonial Athletic Association’s lowest ERA with 2.29 and finished third with 99 strikeouts in 86.1 innings, landing him on the All-CAA Second team. Scouts had been coming for the past few seasons to see ODU ace Justin Verlander, a CAA First Teamer who struck out a state-record 427 in a career 335.2 innings and helped Team USA to a silver medal in last year’s Pan American Games. Now, they had someone else to watch.

&uot;Scouts would come see me while I was warming up in the bullpen,&uot; Smith said. In late September, the team held Scout Day, when people from across the major leagues were invited to watch the team practice. Smith received a stunning total of eight letters.

&uot;I couldn’t believe it,&uot; he said. &uot;I’d never really thought about playing pro ball.&uot; Still, when the major league drafts were held on Monday afternoon, he was right in front of the television at his aunt’s house on Holland Road.

Not surprisingly, Verlander was chosen second overall, and became a Detroit Tiger, the highest Monarch to achieve such a ranking. Twenty-nine picks later, former Western Branch star Justin Orenduff, a friend of Verlander and Smith, went to Los Angeles.

&uot;I had goose bumps for (Verlander),&uot; Smith said. &uot;Right after he got picked, he called me and told me that his family had celebrated for about five minutes, and then gone right back to their computer to see when I got chosen.&uot; Tyyrell, who had gone to Richmond to Verlander’s drafting party, hopped in his car to head back to attend Smith’s.

Just after 3 p.m., Smith’s cell phone rang, and he went outside to answer it. It was a St. Louis scout that he’d spoken with the day before. &uot;I asked what was going on,&uot; he said. &uot;He asked if I was mad. I said kind of, because there were players that had been drafted that weren’t as good as me. He said, ‘That’s OK. We’ve got you!’&uot;

Unable to believe his ears, Smith went back into the house, and kept the call a secret. A few minutes later, the fourth round, 120th overall selection came over the radio. &uot;The St. Louis Cardinals have selected Old Dominion University pitcher Donnie…&uot;

That was all anyone would hear. The room exploded into applause high-fives, low-fives, handshakes, cheers and tears. Verlander and Smith had just become the two highest Monarchs to be drafted in the same draft (in 1993, Wayne Gomes was selected in the first round, and Geoff Edsell was picked in the sixth round by the California Angels). In the span of one year, Smith had raced from obscurity to being ranked among the best the country had to offer.

Since then, Smith said, &uot;I can’t use my phone, because it’s been ringing constantly. The battery’s already died twice.&uot; Verlander was one of the first to call to offer his congratulations.

Shortly after he was picked, a friend of Smith’s left the house. When he came back, Smith was sitting in his car, talking to another friend. The visitor reached through the window and slipped a Cardin-als hat on Smith’s head.

If history is any indication, Smith’s success should continue shortly; after signing his contract in Florida over the next few days, he’ll head to New Jersey to play in the New York/Penn League, only a few miles from where he played with Lehigh.

&uot;That’s kind of cool,&uot; he said. &uot;I’m going to keep lifting a lot of weights and working on my mechanics drills. I’m going to keep working hard.&uot;