TinCaps center fielder Mallex Smith is quite the hitter – or, shall we say, was quite the hitter.
As a senior defensive back for his Rickards Raiders football team in Tallahassee, Fla., Smith had 19 tackles against the Pace Patriots. The following week to get 21 against the Madison County Cowboys.
The crazy thing about Pace is I went to a (baseball) showcase that weekend, Smith said. I was exhausted.
Oh, how he loved football then. Still does. Calls it his passion.
I actually thought I was going to play football around this time of my life, says the 19-year-old, sitting in front of the first dark green locker on the right inside the TinCaps’ locker room. It wasn’t until I went into my senior year of high school I realized that football may not be the path. But football is very big.
At 5-foot-9 and 155 pounds, Mallex Smith is not very big. That explains why he’s trying on his new baseball jersey on a cool April afternoon in Fort Wayne.
He was good enough at Rickards for the Milwaukee Brewers to notice him and make him an offer after graduation as their 13th-round pick.
I just didn’t get enough money, Smith said.
So he went to Santa Fe Community College, where his draft stock rose, as did the contract offer a year later from the San Diego Padres, who took him in the fifth round.
I know he’s a speedy guy, TinCaps manager Jose Valentin says. From what I’ve seen from him in spring training, he’s one of those guys who likes to work. He really wants to get better.
His communication is great. He’s always asking how to do things better – how to get better, like in bunting situations; when you really need to run, or how to play in the outfield. When you see a guy like that coming to you asking all those questions, it’s showing you that he really wants to learn.
Once Smith became their property, the Padres quickly shipped him to rookie ball, where he set the Arizona League on fire. In 25 games, Smith scored 23 runs, hit .344, had a home run, 10 RBI and stole 13 bases.
The numbers were good enough to advance him to Eugene and the Northwest League.
But in 10 games, the batting average dropped to .188. Smith scored six runs and had four stolen bases.
I got some tough breaks, Smith said. I was hitting the ball straight toward people, and I didn’t play as long as I wanted to. I got hurt seven games in. If you’re not doing good the first few games, your batting average is going to be pretty low. I didn’t do as bad as what the stats say.
Expectations? Sure, Smith says, he has high expectations this season. But they’re not about stolen bases or on-base percentages or outfield assists.
His plan is to play as many as games as possible.
I hope to learn how to take care of my body, he says. If I feel I can take care of my body and keep myself healthy through 140 games, I’ll be all right.
While some players at this stage grow into their roles, Smith knows what his job is.
They called me in to be a leadoff guy, and that’s what I plan on being, he said. I like to get on base and steal bases, and do anything to help my team.
And did we say hitting?