Go ahead, you can ask me about it. It’s alright.
A lot of times when athletes get hurt in a gruesome way, they don’t really talk about it. For me? My worst injury was the biggest moment in my career — one of the biggest in my life.
It happened against the Sugar Land Skeeters. It was 2014, in the Independent baseball league playoffs (minor league baseball). My team, the York Revolution, was locked in a tight game against the Skeeters in the Atlantic League playoffs. The series was tied one apiece. It was the bottom of the eighth inning, and we were down 2-1. I came up to the plate, got a pretty good pitch and put a good swing on it. I watched the arc of the ball until I knew it was going to carry far enough.
Boom. Yard. I had just tied up the game.
As the crowd cheered, I did something I’ve done thousands of times — from Little League as a kid to minor league ball — I trotted around first base, basking in the surge of energy you get when you’ve just hit a home run. But this home run trot was different. As I rounded first base, I slipped and fell. Usually when you’re falling, you can brace yourself. But it all happened too fast this time. As I tried to stand up, my right leg just stayed still, stuck in the dirt. I knew right away that my knee was done.
Two weeks prior, just before my son’s first birthday, I had decided to retire. I was still young enough to play at a high level, so it was a real gut-check decision. Could I really be done with baseball after 15 years? My son was a factor in the decision. My son is Robinson Alexander Smith, named after the great Jackie Robinson, and ultimately he’s more important than anything else. I thought it was time to move on from baseball to enter the next phase of my life, whatever that may be, so I could spend more time with my boy. In Independent baseball, you don’t make the big bucks and you travel almost all year round.
For baseball, I’ve missed weddings. For baseball, I’ve missed funerals. I’ve missed parties and vacations — you name it. I wasn’t going to miss my son’s first birthday. So instead of flying home to Chicago, I convinced my wife and son come out to meet me in Texas to watch a game. It was a beautiful moment — the opposing team even put “Happy First Birthday, Robinson” on the big screen.
At dinner after the game, something strange happened. The bill came out to exactly 42 dollars. Not strange to you, maybe, but significant to me. The bill wasn’t $42.50 or $42.12, but $42.00. Forty-two, like Jackie Robinson’s number. It was my son’s birthday and my retirement celebration with my family.
I told my wife, “You know what? Maybe something’s going to happen with baseball.”
Five days later, my knee blew out rounding first base after that home run.
I was in between first and second base. All I could feel was burning. My knee cap was Jell-O. Oh, it was jiggling. What was going on? I thought it was a torn ACL, the most common type of knee injury. But it ended up being my patellar tendon. That’s the tendon that attaches your shin bone to your knee. When you lose that, you lose all function in your quad muscle above the knee. That’s why I was having troubling even moving my leg.
There was a lot of pain, but maybe my instincts were kicking in. All I know is my mind suddenly became clear. In that moment, in the dirt, I assessed my options: get carried off the field, crawl around the bases … or get up.
I rose to one foot by rolling onto one side and using my good leg to stand. Hopping was the only option. I thought, What if that was going to the last time I ever swung a bat in my life? I was determined to get to home plate.
I couldn’t hear the crowd — it was if I had headphones on. But I heard the umpires. They asked if I wanted a pinch-runner. I waved them off. No way. There was no way that I was going to let somebody come in and finish my home run “hop.” Then, as I’m hopping past second base, I caught a glimpse of something. All the way over to the right side of the stadium, all the way down the third base line, people were getting up out of their seats, like a wave.
I snapped back to reality. As people got up to cheer, the crowd sound came back super loud. Weirdly, it was a moment of peace. I know that sounds bizarre, but it really was. I had just hit a bomb to tie the game up in the playoffs. I was about to retire. The pain was mixed with euphoria.
Before my son was born in 2013, I was playing for the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs, a different team in the Atlantic League. It was an off day and I was looking for a barber shop in a town I didn’t know very well. I found one inside of a mall, which was weird because I’d never got my hair cut in a mall. When I walked in, they made me take a number, like at a deli. The number 42 came out.
After looking around at the barbers, I picked one guy out because he reminded me of a guy I played with in the past named Rico Washington. I met Rico when I got drafted in 2000, when I was 17 years old. I hadn’t seen him in years. Long story short, the barber was Rico’s first cousin. I’m in a barbershop in Waldorf, Maryland, a town I would have never been in had I not been playing Indy ball, and he’s got pictures of Rico in his mirror.
I put the ticket that said 42 in my wallet. (I still carry it to this day.)
I was hopping the base path. Now I was between second and third. As soon I as I got to third base, I caught my coach’s eye. It was like he had seen a ghost. Usually when you hit a home run, the coach gives you a high five. He gives you some dap. None of the above for me. His jaw was in the dirt. I must have looked a little crazy. But I was really in the moment. “This is frigging awesome,” I was thinking. I was taking it all in, hopping my way around.
The Sugar Land catcher had a tear in his eye. (We ended up winning the game but I got calls, texts and cards from them in the coming days. Great guys.) They were on the losing end and that sucks, especially in the playoffs, but there were just so warm toward me. I mean, Gary Gaetti is the manager of the Skeeters. There’s nothing that guy hasn’t seen in baseball and he told me he’s never seen anything like that.
The moment would have stayed in the memories of those few thousand players and fans if it weren’t for SportsCenter. You play minor league or Indy ball and it’s not like you’re on the big screen every night. So when I got a text at 12:52 a.m. while I was in the emergency room that said, “You’re going to be on SportsCenter,” I thought it was a prank. But sure enough, my “highlight reel” was the last live episode of the night and I was the number one top play. Crazy! People at the hospital gave me a standing ovation. It was on Good Morning America and a bunch of other shows.
One silver lining of it all was that it brought some attention to my team. Finally some shine for the fans of the York Revolution. These are the most loyal fans I know. And finally some shine for minor league ball players. My 15 seconds of fame turned into something much more enduring because it helped tell the story of many players that practically no one will ever know or hear about. I’ve played with guys who have literally swam across the ocean to get better opportunities to play ball in the States. I’ve also played with many guys born here in the U.S. who gave all they have for the love of the game. They’ve worked offseason jobs for years just to keep the dream alive. Many of them have spent a decade or more of their adult lives chasing the Major Leagues. They did it for the love of the game. If my injury can bring a spotlight on these guys, it will have been worth it.
I’ve been playing baseball since I was nine years old. Sure, I’ve always wanted to make the Majors, but sometimes that’s not how things work out in life. I could have easily gotten discouraged and given up. The injury taught me that. We often ask for things in life, but sometimes we aren’t ready to receive them. There are times when we need an extra lift, some extra inspiration. I saw it in the form of my worst moment — my injury.
I see the number 42 as a good sign, too. It’s a sign that I can’t give up yet. It’s a sign of faith. I see it as a message from God — to put my faith in Him and He will continue to push me throughout my career. And it’s a reminder of my bond with my son.
I’ve decided not to retire. Injuries sometimes end careers or accelerate retirement. For me, it’s the opposite. I’m healthy now and playing some of the best ball of my life. Yes, it’s still a sacrifice to be a good father and still commit to baseball, but I’m making it work. For the first time in my career, my wife and son and are traveling with me to every ball park, all season.
I hope someday to show my son the video of my home run hop. I hope he’ll see his father’s love for the game, even in a moment of weakness. But maybe he’ll just think his daddy is a little crazy. Sons can be tough on their dads that way. I’m sure we’ll have a good laugh about it.