Goss: CrackerJacks lefty Carter Smith a Jim Abbott clone
July 6, 2012 8:52PM
Will County CrackerJacks pitcher Carter Smith. | Supplied photo
Updated: August 9, 2012 6:18AM
Most of us would call it a severe handicap.
To Will County CrackerJacks left-handed pitcher Carter Smith, it’s no big deal. That’s the way it always has been.
Smith, who will be a sophomore at the University of Tennessee-Martin in the fall, is spending his summer as our own Jim Abbott while he attempts to help the CrackerJacks win a second straight Midwest Collegiate League championship.
Remember Abbott, who did not have a right hand? He pitched in the major leagues from 1989 to ’99 with the Angels, Yankees, White Sox and Brewers. He even pitched a no-hitter. That was after an All-American career at Michigan and an unofficial gold medal with the U.S. Olympic team in 1988 (baseball was a demonstration sport then).
Smith may not be blessed with the talent to achieve those heights. But despite being born without a right hand, he gets the most from his ability and never has conceded anything.
Sounds an awful lot like Abbott, doesn’t he?
“I’ve been compared to him a lot,” Smith said with a smile. “I have always looked up to him.”
“Carter does not even consider himself to be handicapped,” CrackerJacks manager Vern Hasty said. “He does not miss a beat. He is an everyday kid just like everyone else.
“He is driven. He has been tested. He doesn’t have to prove anything to me.”
Smith grew up in St. Louis, in a family with five siblings. He played catch with his dad and older brother, and he quickly learned to flip the glove to his left hand after delivering a pitch so he would be in position to field anything that comes his way.
“I never really had to work on it that much,” he said. “It came sort of natural. People sometimes try to bunt on me, but that doesn’t bother me.”
Hasty said the DuPage County Hounds attempted to take advantage of Smith in a game earlier this season. Bad move.
“We were up a run and they had a runner on third with two outs in the ninth inning,” Hasty recalled. “They had the runner take off just as our catcher threw the ball back to Carter.
“It was his (the Hounds manager’s) understanding Carter would not be able to switch off the glove. Well, he did it lightning fast and the runner was out by 20 feet or more.”
Hasty said when Smith was asked about that after the game, if people tried to take advantage like that, in typical fashion “he just smiled.”
Smith started playing baseball in T-ball. He said he hit until his sophomore year in high school. “I gave it up then,” he said. “I realized pitching was what I was going to go to college for.
“I was an OK hitter. I was always a contact hitter, not much for power, of course. I liked to hit the ball the other way.”
Smith also played basketball and football as a youth. He stayed with basketball until his sophomore year of high school.
His interest in football, however, never waned.
“I like college football a lot, and the NFL, too,” he said. “I’m a Georgia Bulldog fan. My dad and grandpa went there. We’ve gone to two or three games there, and it is wild.
“A lot of my friends go to Mizzou (University of Missouri) and they’re going into the SEC. My dad wants to go to the Georgia at Mizzou game this fall, and you know, talk some smack.”
Tennessee-Martin finished 13-41 in Smith’s freshman season, including 7-20 in the NCAA Division I Ohio Valley Conference. Smith was 3-3 with an 8.10 ERA. In 16 games, including seven starts, he pitched 40 innings and allowed 56 hits and 23 walks while striking out 27.
But before questioning his ERA too severely, it must be noted the Skyhawks had a 6.91 team ERA. Smith was fourth on the team in terms of number of starts.
“The Ohio Valley is a hitters’ conference without a doubt,” he said. “We have lots of high-scoring games.”
The CrackerJacks, specifically Hasty and general manager Jamie Toole, recognized Smith’s upside on the diamond and as a teammate. They put in a call to Tennessee-Martin to see if he would be interested in spending his summer in the Joliet area.
“When my coach told me about it, I said, ‘Hey, why not?’ ” he said.
“It was a little different, not knowing anyone when I came here. But I like all the guys on the team. It was only a little adjustment. Of course, the game is always more fun when you’re winning, and we’ve been playing pretty well.”
The CrackersJacks entered the weekend 16-9 and in first place, a half-game ahead of the Illinois Lincolns, in the Midwest Collegiate League South. Smith was 1-0 with a 5.04 ERA. In six games, including four starts, he pitched 25 innings and allowed 26 hits and 12 walks while striking out 21.
Smith throws a fastball, curve, changeup and slider.
“I top out at 85 to 86 (mph),” he said. “I like to mix speeds, keep the ball low. I’m also working on a two-seam fastball, trying to get it to run off the plate.”
Smith is studying sports management in college. If he has his way, using his degree in the working world will have to wait for a while.
“I hope I can pitch in pro ball,” he said. “That’s been my dream.”
Given what he has conquered already in life, it would not be wise to bet against him.