If it hadn't been such a hassle and paid so little, you might
think Chuck Smith's 10-year odyssey through the minors and
obscure foreign leagues was an elaborate ruse to sandbag major
league hitters. Since making his belated big league debut with
the Marlins last June at age 30, Smith has been the most
consistent starter on a staff brimming with highly touted
In 19 starts last season, good for 122 2/3 innings, Smith went 6-6
with a 3.23 ERA, which would have been the National League's
seventh best had he pitched 39 1/3 more innings to qualify for the
ERA title. He did rank second among major league rookies in
strikeouts, with 118 (behind Cardinals lefthander Rick Ankiel's
194). Since missing the first month of this year with a sprained
right shoulder, Smith has picked up where he left off: Through
Sunday he was 3-1 with a 4.00 ERA, and opponents were hitting a
mere .205 against him. Says Florida centerfielder Preston Wilson,
"After a few starts last year we were asking each other why this
guy was just getting to the big leagues."
Never mind the majors; Smith was a latecomer to the game itself.
A standout point guard at Cleveland's John Adams High, he didn't
play baseball until his senior season, and the two years he spent
at Central Arizona College were on a basketball scholarship.
After realizing the NBA wasn't in his future, Smith transferred
to Indiana State and pitched one season for the Sycamores (going
4-6, with a 6.56 ERA in 21 games). Still, the Astros were
impressed enough to sign him as a free agent in June 1991.
For four years Smith moved around within the Houston system, and
then he bounced from organization to organization: to the White
Sox, for whom he was a replacement player during the strike in
'95, to the Rockies to the Rangers, who signed him as a free
agent in '99. In '98 alone Smith did time with a team in Taiwan,
with Sioux Falls of the independent Northern League and with
Torreon of the Mexican League.
It was in Mexico that Smith saw what it would take to make the
majors. "Everywhere else I had pitched, the emphasis was on
development," he says. "In Mexico, we had to win, and that's
where I learned to set my schedule and concentrate from the
minute I stepped into the ballpark. That was my first taste of
the major league lifestyle."
His place at the table finally came last June, after Florida
stole him from the pitching-thin Rangers in a three-player deal
that sent outfielder Brant Brown to the Cubs and outfielder Dave
Martinez to Texas. The Marlins plugged him into their rotation,
and Smith made a strong impression with a four-pitch repertoire
and an ability to change speeds and arm angles. In addition to
two- and four-seam fastballs, a curve and a slider, he throws a
changeup that he calls a foshball, sort of a split-fingered
fastball that he chokes deep in his hand. It has a sharp sinking
motion, and Smith can make it dart in on either lefthanded or
righthanded hitters. "He can throw anything at any time," says
Florida catcher Charles Johnson. "He doesn't overpower hitters,
but he keeps them off balance."
Smith is also favored by teammates for being an extremely quick
worker. Says Wilson, "There's nothing better than playing behind
a guy who doesn't take a lot of time."
Smith should work fast--he's making up for lost time.
COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE