At one of the first full-squad meetings of the season for the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, relief pitcher Blake Smith felt compelled to stand up and say a few words.
He did not only as a returning member of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ High A affiliate, but as a young man in touch with the importance of building a relationship between players and fans, especially the young ones.
“It’s easy when it’s your first go-around in professional baseball to focus completely on baseball and not want to go sign for kids,” Smith said. “There’s a lot of pressure on you and you want to do well. But the more you’re around, the more you realize that doing things like that mean a lot to little kids.”
If it sounds like Smith is speaking from experience, well, he is. Not too many years ago, he was that little kid leaning over the rail asking anybody in uniform for an autograph, and he did it right here at John Thurman Field.
Smith is a Downey High graduate who went on to have an excellent career at the University of California before the Dodgers took him in the second round of the 2009 draft.
“I remember coming here and getting everybody’s autograph and I thought that was the coolest thing ever,” Smith said. “Honestly I have no idea who those players were. They could be people in the big leagues right now.
“But all I know is that those were guys who gave some kids some attention. As a player you have to enjoy the little moments like this because it’s a stressful job.”
At this time last season, Smith had just begun to make the transition from outfielder to pitcher. After the season and instructional league, he pitched in winter ball in Australia, and after a solid spring training had the chance to open the 2014 season in Double-A.
“In the offseason I just tried to get myself into being more of a pitcher than a thrower,” Smith said. “Everybody’s goals are to go up and when they think I’m ready I’ll go. Until then I’m going to get my work in here.”
Smith got a surprise last fall during instructional league when – while players were standing and introducing themselves to each other – one of the Dodgers farmhands mentioned a hometown of Modesto.
It was Central Catholic graduate Billy Flamion, who like Smith is making the transition from outfield to the mound. Flamion is set to open the season with a short-season squad in June.
“I chatted with him and we shot names back and forth and found we had some people in common,” Smith said. “He looked good. We didn’t talk a lot about it, but I know he’s going through the same conversion I am. It’s just awesome to see other Modesto guys around in baseball.”