Including his role as the leadoff hitter Tuesday night, outfielder Jordan Smith has played in 379 games for the RubberDucks.
He’s 26 years old on a team that the average player is just over 23. His first game at the Double-A level was the first game in Akron with the RubberDucks moniker, and none of the hitters in that game’s lineup are still on the team. Two of them — center fielder Tyler Naquin and shortstop Francisco Lindor — played in the World Series last year.
But Smith embraces his role as the RubberDucks’ veteran presence. He’s reached Triple-A in Columbus three times, but as he continues his fourth season primarily with the RubberDucks, he has unwavering optimism.
“I’m definitely enjoying myself. I’m still getting every day at-bats,” Smith said. “I can’t complain — the Indians have been nothing but great to me, so I’m very thankful.”
The RubberDucks (36-35) are playing some of their best baseball of the season despite a slow start that included five consecutive losses at the beginning of April. They entered Tuesday night a game ahead of the Erie SeaWolves for second place in the Eastern League Western Division, which would be good enough to get them into the postseason.
Smith and manager Mark Budzinski both attribute their difficult early goings to the team’s youth but, unlike Budzinski, Smith is on the field with them. He’s led by example to players who are just becoming familiar with the body of work being a professional baseball player requires.
“This is a really young team, so for a lot of them, it’s their first crack at Double-A and a lot of them are trying to figure out the grind, getting out of slumps, being consistent and showing up every day, still learning certain aspects of the games,” Smith said. “I kind of feel like one of the veterans, just being able to help guys out and encourage guys to help them when they’re down.”
Never vocal leader
Pat Dolan, the baseball coach at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, said Smith was never a particularly vocal leader. Even when Dolan recruited Smith as a three-sport athlete from Willmar High School, located just an hour from St. Cloud, Smith was more show than tell.
Dolan said 100 coaches attended Smith’s showcase during his sophomore year, including those from Division I universities. However, an untimely thunderstorm chased away most of those observers, leaving just a few to create their first impressions of Smith, who hit a dozen home runs in the showcase once the rain cleared up.
“We were very, very fortunate as a Division II school to get him, let’s put it that way,” Dolan said. “I think many Division I schools missed the boat on him, and maybe it was that day that they didn’t stick around for the rain.”
The next spring, Smith lifted the Division II Huskies to prominence in just his freshman year. Dolan recalled Smith’s first at-bat being an opposite-field line drive up the left-field line and a crushed 425-footer to center field his next time up. The Huskies were playing in a doubleheader, and Dolan moved Smith from the seventh spot in the lineup to the third.
Smith went on to hit .457 that season and set the team record for most hits in a season at 96. A year later — his last with the Huskies before the Indians selected him in the ninth round of the 2011 draft — the conference named him Player of the Year.
“Jordan is hands-down the best player I’ve ever coached. He’s not the big rah-rah guy, but he’s got the fire and really it’s about the work ethic,” Dolan said. “I know he’s had some really good years with Akron and he’s made that trip up to Triple-A where he hasn’t quite had that success there, but I know someone’s going to have to take the jersey off his back before he calls it quits.”
Attention to detail
He opened the 2017 season on the Columbus Clippers roster, but in 95 at-bats with the Clippers, he’s tallied just 14 hits and seven runs. With the RubberDucks, he’s hitting .248 and Budzinski said Smith’s attention to detail has benefited those less experienced players around him.
“He’s smart, he makes decisions knowing what the score of the game is, how many outs there are, what inning of the game we’re in,” Budzinski said. “Little things like that, veteran guys can teach the younger guys by going out and doing it the way they do it.”
Smith said he’ll continue to focus on his own play as he aims to get back to Columbus. He believes minor league baseball is a one-step-at-a-time process, and his approach won’t differ from that mentality.
“We’re in Double-A right now and that’s my only focus is to just go out there every day and play,” Smith said. “[I want to] put the best version of myself on the field and encourage others around me while I do that.”