By Dustin Saracini
Ninth inning. Save situation. Seaman Stadium – the 4000 strong knows who’s getting the ball. Craig Smith trots in the from the bullpen to shut the opposition down, and much like he did at Columbia College, he gets the job done.
For Smith, who recorded the most saves in franchise history, hearing the crowd clap him home with two outs and a pair of strikes is a feeling that cannot be duplicated.
“That first game against Medicine Hat, that home opener,” Smith recalled. “I wish I could go back and relive it. I can feel it right now as we’re talking about it. The first time ever in my career where I could feel the fans and everybody getting rowdy under my feet. It was crazy. At that point, you’re just coming off a ton of adrenaline. It’s really indescribable what you are feeling in that moment. I loved every second of closing out a game at Seaman Stadium.”
Coming from St. Louis, Missouri, Smith says he has a deep appreciation for fans who genuinely know the game of baseball, something he found at every corner in the small town of Okotoks.
One of his biggest moments for the Dawgs came on the Saskatchewan road trip in Weyburn, at a point in the season where he had already accumulated 10 saves. A walk-off home run against him after a five-pitch outing motivated the Columbia college standout, who went on to record four straight saves following the loss, including back-to-back shutdown innings in Moose Jaw. He ended the trip with a 9-6 win in Swift Current, his third appearance in as many days, and one that wasn’t even supposed to happen.
“For us to go 3-2 on that road trip would have been huge after losing the first one in Weyburn,” Smith said. “Joe (Sergent) came up to me in the bullpen and he said ‘I don’t think I’m going to use you today.’ I looked at him and said ‘Why, why not today.” He said, ‘If you throw tonight we won’t be able to use you Sunday against Edmonton’ … I just looked at him and said ‘Joe, I’m a senior … throw me in this game this is a big one for us to get’ … that one was huge.”
It’s this type of grit that defines Smith’s game, and allowed him to battle back from surgery on his elbow. Finding his top form again wasn’t easy prior to coming to Okotoks, as he had to progress through extensive rehab. The 6-foot-4 righty had to sit out his junior year with what he called “a rare extra muscle” in his arm, which caused nerve damage. It wasn’t until the summer, Smith says, that he was back to 100 percent – and it came at the perfect time.
“It was a long road … my senior season I had a lot of tendonitis, stuff flaring up from the surgery,” he said. “They say it normally takes about a year to fully recover from it, from any type of major surgery … I was constantly battling some elbow pain, forearm pain. Then I got to Okotoks and started throwing again and it felt a lot better.”
Recording 15 saves in his debut season as a Dawg, the senior not only became a household name in Okotoks, but he earned pitcher of the year honours. There was a ton of talent on the team, Smith says, so when he was told he earned the award, it came out of left field.
“I was shocked. A, because I had so many less innings than (Cody) Ebert and (Mason) Swegarden, (Carter) Robinson, (Brock) Townsend. There were points in the season where all those guys could have been the best pitcher in the league for short stints,” he said. “It was a huge honour just knowing the expectation and the standards around Okotoks, and the winning tradition, all those former big-leaguers that played, it’s really cool to have your name up there with some of those guys.”
Going into Dawgs history with him will be Eddie Sanchez (MVP), Richard Mascarenas (True Grit), and Will Hollis (Rookie of the Year).
“Eddie is someone I’ll never forget playing with,” he said. “He’s really what you want in a teammate and is a true Dawg. Richie, not only is he gritty … but he’s got an amazing glove … Hollis is obviously a very talented hitter and he’s got that ‘wow’ factor whenever he comes to play.”
A selfless Smith went on to say that he was a mere “cog in the machine,” and a “complement to everyone else on the team,” but, if it was one player who could deliver in high-leverage situations, it was him.
Playing for the Dawgs, with the facilities that were provided, was something Smith never took for granted. Now that he is onto the next chapter in his life, the city and fans will always hold a special place in his memories. As he categorized it, a summer in Okotoks was the perfect way to close out his senior season and ultimately, an incredible career.