By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
BUFFALO, New York – Things have happened faster than ever before for Dwight Smith Jr. this season.
After spending the last two full years with Toronto’s double-A affiliate, the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, the lefty-hitting outfielder broke camp out of spring training with the triple-A Bisons this season. Upon his arrival in Buffalo, Smith was excited for what his time in the International League would bring.
“It’s definitely exciting being in Buffalo,” he said early in the season. “This is my first time up here, so anytime you move to a new spot, you get that new spark of energy. This is new to me, so there’s nothing I would change about it and I’m enjoying it.”
After hitting .297/.350/.422 with three home runs, seven doubles, 22 runs scored and 17 runs driven in over his first 35 games of the season, the 24-year-old – almost three full years younger than the league’s average age – found himself earning his first call to the big leagues, with the Blue Jays short on outfielders.
“Thanks to my family, friends, coaches, and [the] Blue Jays for this opportunity,” Smith tweeted for the occasion. “I’m truly blessed [and] now the fun begins.”
With a renewed spark of energy, Smith joined the major league team on the road in Atlanta, the native of Peachtree, Georgia heading straight back home to play against the squad that his father finished his eight years in the big leagues with. In one game against the Braves, Smith drew a walk in three plate appearances.
After getting into another contest against the Orioles in Baltimore, the 5-foot-11, 195-pound outfielder was optioned back to Buffalo. He returned to join the club for another game in Milwaukee – where the former first-round pick notched his first major league hit, a pinch-hit double – before being optioned once more. In the three games he’s played for the Bisons amid all of the roster moves, Smith has seven hits, including his fourth home run of the year, with two runs and four RBI.
Continuing to take opportunities to learn each and every day, Smith has enjoyed his time in the Blue Jays organization wherever he is, consistently trying to take bits and pieces from as many people as he can along the way.
“It’s been awesome,” Smith said. “The coaches here have been in our shoes. We mainly just pick their brains, every day, every little thing, you can pick them and take things and apply them into your game. So when you get to your final destination, which is the big leagues hopefully, it’s all fresh and you’re ready for that moment when you get that opportunity.”
The person who has helped Smith the most in preparing for the shot he got, and will have again, is his father. John Dwight Smith Sr. – originally a third-round pick of the Blue Jays before being selected by and starting his career with the Chicago Cubs – spent parts of nine seasons in the minors with pieces of eight in the big leagues with the Cubs, Angels, Orioles and Braves, and can relate to anything and everything his son brings to him.
“I ask my dad about everything,” Smith said. “He’s been there from being drafted, to being a rookie, to winning a World Series, so I can ask him about everything. We’re similar. He played more of a speed game and I’m more of a hitter type, so that’s where our games differentiate. I’m more of a power guy than he was, and he was more about speed, get on base, steal bases. I picked up a bat left-handed and started hitting left-handed and that was always easy for me.
“But he taught me everything about hitting, and the game. We talk about it a lot, and I don’t get sick of it. Maybe every now and then, when I have a bad game or something like that, but not really. He understands where I’m coming from and he understands when I’m struggling, how I feel, so it’s amazing to have him.”
Within the organization, one of the people who has helped Smith the most has been Toronto’s outfield and baserunning coordinator Tim Raines, set to enter the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown this summer. The veteran who spent 23 seasons in the big leagues has provided invaluable insight to Smith and given him a new perspective on certain aspects of the game.
“Rock taught me some things about baserunning that I never really thought about,” he said. “Certain things to look for, certain pitches. They all have tendencies to give away whether they’re going to home or when they’re picking over. So I can see why he stole 800 bases because I didn’t see some of those things he was mentioning before.
”I’ve been able to do it a couple times it made it so much easier. I remember one day last year, when I stole four bases in a game. I saw what he was talking about and took off immediately, so that was a huge help for me.”
Along the way through his six years of professional baseball, Smith has been able to learn from a number of other players, from both inside and outside the organization, thanks to experiences from playing in the prospect-laden Arizona Fall League three years ago to attending rookie development camp in Virginia at the beginning of this calendar year.
“Everybody has their own little experiences,” Smith said. “Maybe from a coach or another player, you might hear that one little thing that might click with you. You might hear something new that just sounds different, or the information comes in a different way but is pretty much the same thing. Maybe it’s that one way he says it that clicks for you when nothing else does…
“That’s happened when I’m listening to [Jose] Bautista and [Josh] Donaldson,” Smith said. “Because I hit with a leg kick, so I’ve looked at them and how they do things, so I would pick their brains and ask questions. And for me personally I just watch, and I learn a lot from doing that. And when I am looking at a lefty, it would probably be Carlos Gonzalez or Robinson Cano or Adrian Gonzalez.”
As he continues his development, whatever level Smith finds himself at day to day, he is happy with the progress he’s made and excited about playing for the team he finds himself on and the teammates he is with.
“My approach has gotten better,” he said. “My overall game is a lot better, and I’ve really matured over the last couple of years. Every year you get better, so it’s been that consistently.
“Being here [in Buffalo] is nice because a lot of these guys I’ve never seen or played with before. Only a couple of us have been playing together for a year or two, or more than that, but it’s nice to gel with a new group of guys and see where it takes us during the season.”