Two years ago, Derek Smith lived his baseball life in 15-day increments. Perform well for those 15 days and his baseball dreams continued. Play poorly and the dream might die.
The former Jersey Shore all-star shortstop was playing in the prestigious Cape Cod Summer League, one that is filled with Division I stars and top Major League prospects. Smith, then playing at Pitt-Bradford, was the only Division III player invited, but the catch was he had a 15-day contract to start ... And then another 15-day contract ... And then another. Each day he was playing for his future.
"It was tough because every day you had to go in knowing there's a Division I guy they're looking at and they can cut you any time they want," Smith said. "I had 15 days to show them what I had. It wasn't until mid-summer that I finally got a contract and knew I couldn't get cut. It was tough but it made me stronger. I definitely worked a lot harder and it was a great opportunity. I learned so much there. I learned more in a week there than I have anywhere in a few months."
Jersey Shore assistant baseball coach Derek Smith will begin his professional baseball career with the Gary Southshore Railcats when he reports to spring training this week.
Jersey Shore assistant coach Derek Smith, right, gives a fist bump to one of his players at first base during a game this season against Williamsport.
Smith has parlayed his strong showing there and a fantastic collegiate career into something bigger. And this time, he has some security.
Smith signed a contract to play for the Gary Southshore Railcats last November. The Railcats are a member of the American Association, an Independent Professional Baseball league. The four-year collegiate starter heads to spring training Wednesday and could be playing first base, third base or catcher, the position he played while in Cape Cod. The organization is not an affiliate of a Major League team, but has been a pipeline to the Chicago White Sox in the past.
After recording a .419 career batting average at Pitt-Bradford where he was one of the team's top run producers and fielders, Smith thought he was going to get drafted last June. Despite assurances, the call never came and Smith seemed at a dead end. Now, the door is open again and Smith has a chance prove those Major League teams wrong.
Dr. Masse's Top 5 rankings
1. Jersey Shore (10-1)
The Bulldogs made a big statement among Lycoming County teams, routing Hughesville and Williamsport by a 23-1 margin before displaying their resiliency. Trailing Mifflinburg by two in the seventh inning Friday, Jersey Shore won 7-6 on Cody Bradley's sacrifice fly. The win clinched the program's ninth straight playoff berth and gave it momentum entering today's big game against fellow title contender Midd-West in a rematch of last year's District 4 Class AAA championship. Jersey Shore is the only team that has beaten Midd-West (10-1) and could open a two-game lead in the HAC-I with a win as it pursues its third straight league title.
2. Hughesville (9-3)
A year ago, the Spartans dropped to 1-4 after suffering a 10-0, 5-inning defeat at Mifflinburg. They won 17 of their next 20 games and captured their first district championship. After losing 13-0 at Jersey Shore last Tuesday, Hughesville appears eager to come back strong again. The Spartans routed Lewisburg, 15-2 and beat South Williamsport, 4-1 while staying in a first-place tie in the HAC-II. Hughesville pitchers have held opponents to fewer than four runs and are 8-0 in those games. Cody Stryker is 3-0 and Tyler Mitcheltree and Justin Lambert combined on a five-hitter against South.
3. Loyalsock (6-3)
The Lancers overcame a lot of adversity to win the Class AA state championship last year and are hoping history repeats itself. Loyalsock was dealt a huge blow last week when Duke-bound pitcher Luke Glavin was lost for the season following surgery to remove a blood clot from his arm. The Lancers already have been playing all season without all-state outfielder Robbie Klein but won consecutive 16-0 games over Mount Carmel and Shamokin. This team seems to play its best when times are toughest and Andrew Malone showed he is eager to try and fill the void, throwing a 1-hitter and striking out 12 in five innings against Shamokin in his varsity debut.
4. Mansfield (8-2)
Despite being gutted by graduation, Mansfield is one of the district's hottest teams, winning eight of its last nine games while staying tied for first with Canton in the NTL. The Tigers have been outstanding late in games, overcoming deficits of two runs or more in the final three innings of consecutive wins over Wellsboro, Athens and Troy. Mansfield also beat Towanda, 6-3 Friday and has received a big lift from freshman J.P. Shaw who is 3-1 and has been one of the team's most consistent hitters. Brady Andrews has sparked the offense and Bryce Zaparzynski is 2-0 with three saves.
Hughesville cooled the Mounties who had won three straight and emerged as a darkhorse HAC-II title contender. South lost six starters from last year and has dealt with several costly injuries thus far, but has made some big strides. The Mounties hammered Central Columbia, 13-3 last Wednedsay and the Blue Jays had the district's best Class AA record at the time. Carter Alexander has made a smooth transition from third base to shortstop and has three multi-hit performances in his last four games while Anthony Caruso is having a big season and has homered in three of his last five games.
Players of the week
Dawson Prough, Wellsboro & Zach Miller, Jersey Shore
Both players are as hot as can be and Prough is especially giving NTL opponents fits since he is only a sophomore. Prough went 8 for 11 last week with two home runs, three doubles and 10 RBIs. He has nine games with at least two hits and is 15 for 21 in his last six games. Miller hit three home runs in four at-bats at one point last week and went 6 for 8 with four home runs and nine RBIs. He has six multi-hit performances in his last eight games.
Game of the week
Montoursville is in near desperation-mode, fighting an uphill battle while dealing with a condensed schedule. The Warriors (1-4) hope to spark a late-season run Wednesday in the latest installment of a fierce rivalry. At least one of these teams has won ever SVL/HAC-I championship since 2005 and they split two games last year.
"It was extremely disappointing when you have scouts telling you you're going to go and have your coach saying he talked to guys and they said you're going to go," Smith said. "It kind of put a chip on my shoulder. I know I'm still good enough to play and I want to go out there and make a statement."
Basically, it is Cape Cod all over again. Smith was the underdog there but performed well. Do the same again and he could find himself working his way up the professional baseball ladder. A potential long journey lies ahead, but the 24-year old is being paid to play baseball. He is playing, period. That is all that matters.
"I don't want to give up. That was my mindset, I still want to play so I have to get my name out there," Smith said. "That's all any kid wants is a chance. All it takes is one day when you catch someone's eye and they say I like that kid. That's why I tell our kids you never know who's watching. Every day you walk out there could be someone watching so you fly on and off the field, you dive after balls, give everything you got because all it takes is one time when you catch someone's eye and there's your chance."
Following the draft, Smith kept his dream alive by attending various workouts across the country. He attended workouts for the Seattle Mariners and Arizona Diamondbacks, in addition to various independent sessions. He caught the Railcats' eye last September and signed a contract two months later. He will be playing in the American Association and will be hoping to catch the eye of Major League scouts every day.
Smith's arrival in Gary, means Jersey Shore's baseball team will be losing a coach. After helping usher in a dominant era of Bulldog baseball from 2006-08, Smith returned home last winter and served as the Bulldogs' first-base coach through the first 11 games. Smith minored in coaching while at Pitt-Bradford and hopes to coach again at some point, although he hopes that comes after a lengthy pro career.
Jersey Shore's starting shortstop for three years, Smith was a vital cog for the 2006 team that captured the program's first District 4 Class AAA championship. Providing slick fielding, consistent hitting and strong leadership, Smith helped transform the program into a dominant one that has won a district and/or league championship in eight consecutive seasons.
Although he was only with his former team a short time this season, Smith again made an impact. Players responded well to him look up to a player who is the first from Jersey Shore to play professionally since Alan Probst in the 1990s.
"Him coaching has been excellent for us," catcher/outfielder Christian Rishel said. "He is a great influence on us and he knows a lot about baseball so it's huge for us. It's a big eye-opener."
That is what Smith's career now comes down to. He has the opportunity and now Smith needs to open more eyes. The more, the better.
Smith knows the odds of reaching the Majors someday might be long. He has been an underdog throughout his life and has excelled. The kid who wanted to be a professional baseball player is living the dream so this is the fun part.
And this time, Smith knows he has more than 15 days to attract attention.
"Nobody heard about me in college until my junior season when I had a breakout year and knowing you're the underdog it always puts a chip on your shoulder," Smith said. "I take the same approach every day. I didn't get drafted so here's my opportunity to show everyone what I can do.
"I have a great opportunity and I know I cannot take it for granted."
Former South Williamsport star and current Towson starter Kurt Wertz had a monster day last Friday, going 4 for 5 with three home runs and seven RBIs in a 15-12 win over James Madison. Wertz leads Towson in both home runs and RBIs ... Canton pitcher John Bowman is giving the defending Eastern Region Class A champions a third reliable pitcher behind Chase Pepper and Garrett Wesneski. Bowman is 3-0 and threw a complete-game three-hitter with 14 strikeouts in Friday's 8-1 win over Cowanesque Valley ... Former Montgomery outfielder Corey Kriner is having a nice season at Milton. The senior went 4 for 5 with two RBIs in Friday's 10-5 win over Selinsgrove ... Kriner's former team has heated up and won three straight games last week. Montgomery (7-5) highlighted its week with a 4-3 win at Danville, two days after the Ironmen beat Loyalsock and three days before they beat Montoursville ... Jake Miller, Dylan Gordon and Marcus Bartlett threw complete-game gems in those three wins ... Muncy (7-3) also has won three straight and rallied late to beat Millville by a run for a second consecutive time. Ken Koch improved to 3-0 and struck out four in a short relief outing while Maurice Brown continued his big season and went 3 for 4.
Masse may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him for more high school baseball information on Twitter at @docmasse.