A dream rekindled
2002 LHS grad returns to baseball, tries to land spot on KU roster
Phillip Smith trotted in from center field on a recent Monday night with a glow in his eyes and the corner of his mouth curled into a grin.
It wasn't a typical night for his team in the 23-and-under men's fastpitch baseball league at Mid-America Sports Complex in Shawnee. Leading 4-0 after five innings, their lead had just slipped away thanks to a series of walks, a couple of errors and some untimely hits.
Most players in the dugout swore or muttered to themselves in frustration. Smith simply smiled and said "That was interesting" before slapping his hands together and encouraging his teammates to rally.
A comeback bid fell short in the 7-5 loss, but afterward Smith ambled to the parking lot with the same grin on his face.
Win or lose, he's just happy to be playing baseball again. He'll turn 23 next week, but he's back on the field and chasing his dream one last time.
"I'm just glad I get the chance to play again, have fun and be on a team," he said.
For a long time, Smith believed his playing days were behind him. He thought he'd struck out on baseball four years ago when he walked away from the game after playing for a year at Kansas City Kansas Community College.
The 2002 Lansing High graduate, two-time All-Kaw Valley League outfielder and former player for the Lansing Huskies American Legion baseball team knew what it took to be successful at the high school level. Baseball came easy to him. College baseball demanded more commitment than he realized as an 18-year-old who was used to being in the starting lineup.
"I was on the bench a little bit, but I still hit .400 my first semester," he said. "I should've stuck it out. That is seriously the biggest mistake I've made in my life was not even trying to follow through."
No longer playing baseball, Smith lacked direction. He left school temporarily, and he was rarely cheerful.
"I was really down on myself," Smith admitted. "Mistakes I made when I was 18 : I should've just stuck it out and manned up."
His happiest moments came in the summertime while coaching American Legion summer baseball with his father Michael Smith and high school teammate Brett Horseman.
When Smith enrolled at the University of Kansas in the fall of 2005, his father called him and told him when baseball tryouts were. Smith barely considered it.
Last fall rolled around, and again his father called with a piece of information: "KU tryouts are coming up."
This time, Smith's ears perked up.
"When I'm trying to get behind, he's always there to pick me up," Smith said of his father, noting that the simple suggestion turned his life around.
Why not give it a shot?
Twenty-six players showed up for tryouts. Of them, 25 played junior college baseball the year before. Smith was the only one who hadn't, but it didn't matter. Three players made the cut, and Smith was one of them.
He spent the next few weeks practicing with the KU squad as a center fielder, and he hung onto every word that Jayhawks coach Ritch Price said.
"What I liked about (Price) is that we were the walk-ons and he already had his people picked and he didn't even have to be there, but he was the one throwing us (batting practice) from the mound, and he was the one talking to us and finding out who we were," Smith said. "He was an all-around nice guy."
Unfortunately for Smith and the other walk-ons, their Division I baseball dream was short-lived. KU had 36 roster spots and 36 players on scholarship. That left no room for walk-ons in the spring.
The Jayhawks went 28-30 this season and missed out on the Big 12 Conference tournament. Shortly thereafter, Smith received an e-mail from Price telling him to find a team to play for in the summer. The KU coach wanted Smith and the other two walk-ons to try out again in the fall.
Smith called his father, a long-time coach in the area, and asked for help finding a summer team. His dad used a few contacts and hooked Smith up with a team at Mid-America Sports Complex in Shawnee. The team consists mostly of players from the University of St. Mary, but also includes former LHS players Mike Amaral and Cody Mohan.
Smith still helps coach the American Legion Lansing Cubs this summer, but the rest of his time is spent roaming center field and batting high in the lineup for his summer squad.
"It's refreshing to see, because he's having fun," Michael Smith said. "For so long in that down period for him, he never smiled. He'd just kind of mosey around. But now he has a spring in his step and he's having fun. As a dad, it's a great feeling to see that."
As a player, Smith said it feels even better. He's had one of the most consistent bats in his team's lineup all summer. He went three-for-three in his first game, and he played 10 games before striking out.
He's savoring the moments when things go well, but the occasional struggles do little to kill the buzz he's feeling by playing the game again.
"I hate losing more than anything else," he said. "But right now it's just fun to be out here. I see these 50-year-old men playing, and if I don't blow out a knee then I'm going to do that, too."
But first things first. KU has tryouts coming up in October, and Smith plans to be there. He wants one more shot at playing Division I baseball. It it's only for a matter of weeks like last year, then he'll take it. If he can make the spring roster, even better.
Right now he's just glad he still has the opportunity to play, and he's happy he acted on that opportunity before time passed him by.
"If I can make the team again, just to wear a jersey in college, that's my goal : just to walk on that college field," he said. "Just stepping on the field where the grass is the same height as the dirt and nothing is messed up, even if it's just for practice it feels good."