Justin Smoak faces big adjustment with death of his confidant father | Mariners
Mariners' first baseman Justin Smoak faces a big challenge: carrying on without the guidance of his father, Keith, who died of cancer last month at 57.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Texas Rangers @ Mariners, 7:10 p.m., ROOT
His former college coach first saw the bond between Justin Smoak and his father when the Mariners first baseman was only 15.
Ray Tanner was the University of South Carolina baseball coach and had begun recruiting Smoak as a sophomore in high school. He saw Smoak keep "a great perspective about the game" well beyond this years, treating an 0-for-4 day at the plate the same as a 4-for-4 outing.
As he got to know Smoak's family, Tanner sensed the player's calm demeanor came from his father, Keith, who attended all of his son's games and workouts. Tanner could tell Smoak looked up to his dad, but he also noticed how they'd chat together like two friends the same age.
"And it never changed, even when he came to play for me," Tanner said. "A lot of the kids were young men and at that age, you often go in different directions and drift until you're 25 or 26. It was never like that with Justin. It was like his dad was his guiding light and in a very strong way. It was like he was his confidant."
That light was extinguished two weeks ago when Smoak's father died from lung cancer at age 57, less than a year after being diagnosed. Smoak left the team for a week to be with his family in Goose Creek, S.C., then returned and hit two home runs his first two nights while collecting 10 runs batted in his first four games back.
Smoak, 24, now leads the Mariners with four home runs, 17 RBI and an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .894, emerging as the mid-order threat the team dreamed of when it acquired him last July. Outwardly, at least, he says playing again has been good for him as he tries to cope with his loss.
"I try not to think about it," Smoak said last week. "But things happen for a reason."
Those who know Smoak best say that, as calm as he appears, it will take time for him to feel centered again without the man who shaped his career and life.
"He's a quiet kid," said Richard Wieters, a longtime friend of Smoak's father. "He keeps a lot inside. I'm sure he's hurting right now. With all he went through ... the family really went through a lot.
"It was hard on Justin. Keith didn't want him worrying about it with all the other stuff he had to face, the pressure of trying to live up to all the expectations."
Keith Smoak himself said as much in an interview with The Times last summer, briefly mentioning his cancer diagnosis from two months before. He asked, at the time, that his illness not be publicized but said he brought it up because he wanted an outsider's perspective on how his son seemed to be dealing with daily life.
He also wanted others to quietly be aware that his son was coping with something big off the field and not hold it against him if he seemed aloof or lost.
"He really took it hard," Keith Smoak said of the cancer prognosis.
Family friend Wieters knows about the on-field pressures Smoak dealt with in a rookie season that saw him struggle to hit .200 and get demoted to Class AAA after being part of the huge Cliff Lee deal. His own son, Matt, a catcher with the Baltimore Orioles and just a year older than Smoak, faced similar scrutiny after being named Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year in 2008.
Both the Smoaks and the Wieters, fathers and sons, had made daily pilgrimages to the local diamond.
"We were always at the park, in the batting cages from the time they were both little kids," Wieters said.
The boys remained friends and later teamed at Stratford High School in Goose Creek. And their fathers were right there with them.
"Keith was a quiet man," Wieters said. "He wasn't a yeller, that's for sure. If he had a problem, he used to talk things out. He and Justin would talk all the time."
And that continued, even after Smoak's father got sick.
"When Justin was back here for the funeral, my wife was up at the house and talking with him about the times he had with his dad," Wieters said. "It's amazing all the things Justin talked with his dad about."
Smoak's older brother, David, 35, a former college player and now an administrator for the town of Farragut, Tenn., remembers his dad guiding them through formative baseball years.
"He loved sports and he loved his kids, and he made sure to be there for both things," he said.
Even when both Smoak boys were in college, their dad would still offer tips.
It was his father who taught Smoak to switch-hit. He'd shown him how to bat right-handed in their backyard at age 4 because the dad had hit that way while playing American Legion ball.
But little Justin also ate and threw with his left hand. His father decided that maybe he should try swinging that way.
And so, at age 9, Smoak took turns batting right-handed, then left-handed during games. It wasn't long before he got the hang of it.
"I thought he might have been even better swinging left-handed," his father confided last summer.
The tips continued even when Smoak became a college star with South Carolina. His college coach, Tanner, said Smoak's father and mother, Debbie, were mainstays with the team.
"They even came up to fall workouts and scrimmages on the weekends," Tanner said. "For us, those would be like spring training."
And Smoak's dad, for all his advice, never forced anything on his son.
"His dad was never, ever overbearing," Tanner said. "He was never the pushy parent in that way."
Tanner remembers sitting in Smoak's family home right after Oakland drafted him in the 16th round as a high-school senior and were dangling a reported $900,000 at him to forego college.
"They decided to convene a family meeting," Tanner said. "They all — mom, dad, Justin — had a role to play. And everybody had value in their input."
In the end, the teen-aged Smoak decided he was best off turning down the money.
"Again, that goes back to keeping it in perspective and not letting it get emotional," Tanner said. "That's how he was when I met him. He can keep his emotions separate and keep his perspective on things."
Just hours after Tanner said that last week, Mariners manager Eric Wedge echoed those comments when asked about Smoak's clutch hits on the road trip.
"He has a nice, even-keeled approach in those situations," Wedge said.
But Smoak is now dealing with something far different than just baseball. Keeping his emotions in check might not always be possible.
"It was hard on our entire family," Smoak's brother said of the 11-month ordeal. "You'd have days when doctors would deliver reports and you tried to be hopeful. But there wasn't a whole lot of good news coming in."
And that's why, when Tanner got a phone call from his former star right before Mariners spring training this year, he didn't hesitate. Smoak wanted his dad to fulfill his dream of playing catch with his son and seeing him hit at the Gamecocks' new $36 million Carolina Stadium.
"I told him, 'This is your team, Justin.' " Tanner said. "Anything you want."
The next day, Smoak, his wife, Kristin, his mother and by then wheelchair-bound father drove 100 miles to the Columbia, S.C. stadium from Goose Creek, while his brother came from Tennessee. Tanner gave Smoak's father a Gamecocks jersey with the name "K. Smoak" and Justin's No. 12 on the back.
Smoak's brother stood beside his father's wheelchair catching throws from Justin. He'd hand the ball to his father, who would throw it back. When Smoak took batting practice, his dad was alongside the cage, critiquing his swings as always. Smoak's father later called it the best day of his life because his entire family was there together.
"It was a great day for all of us," Smoak's brother said. "Because we never would have another chance to do it."
Their father's condition deteriorated rapidly the final six weeks until his death. Smoak's brother agreed the weeks ahead won't be easy.
"The one thing I can tell you is that Justin got to spend a lot of time with our father the past year," his brother said. "He was down here in the offseason and got to see him all the time. They'd talk on the phone every day about how he was doing.
"My father was really happy that he had the television package and could see him play all the time last season. They talked a lot about how things went for him last year and what he needed to do. They said a lot to each other, and I think that will help."
Words Smoak can draw upon as his Seattle career forges ahead, minus the confidant who saw him this far.
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or email@example.com
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