A lot of kids in Jake Smith’s position probably would have given up by now.
Smith, an SPS sophomore, will be the starting shortstop for the NYU baseball team next spring, slotting comfortably into the number three spot in the lineup. But it has been a long road for him to get to this point, and now, he doesn’t want to let the moment slip away.
Hailing from Gilbert, Arizona, the 21-year-old has been playing sports his whole life. For some, that might mean a sport in the spring and a sport in the fall, but for Smith, that meant a little bit more: endeavors included baseball, basketball, football, soccer, bicycle motocross and swimming.
“I had pretty bad ADD when I was a kid and I didn’t know it at the time or think it was a big deal,” Smith said. “But I couldn’t sit still and I loved playing a bunch of sports, so I would be out and about.”
Over time, Smith narrowed his focus down to baseball, and while he had always planned on playing in college, it was in high school where he slowly realized that he had a chance to play professionally. As friends around him started getting drafted, Smith saw that all he would have to do was really put in the work.
He was in a position that any kid would covet — a raw talent that was highly regarded by scouts around the country with a realistic possibility of getting drafted, or at least pursuing baseball at a Division I university.
But Smith had other plans.
Smith had always wanted to serve a mission with his church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. So in September 2013, a few months after he had graduated high school, that’s what he did, putting any dreams of playing baseball at a higher level on hold for the time being.
With barely a base level of Spanish in his pocket and no connections in the area to which he was headed, Smith hopped on a plane to Honduras. As he worked on various projects in the country, like helping in the construction of houses, Smith said his faith shone through.
“Physically helping people with issues was a huge deal but then also teaching them the gospel so that they were able to help themselves in their own lives,” Smith said.
He had planned for the mission to be two years long, but just a couple months into his experience, disaster struck — Smith contracted malaria.
He tried to battle through the aches and soreness, often toppling over in crippling full-body pain. The turning point came four months into the mission, when Smith was curled up in a closet passed out, not wanting to tell anyone because he didn’t want to go home. But at this point, Smith said, he realized something had to change. It wasn’t even a quarter of the way through the trip and he was on a flight headed back to the states.
Smith said at the time he found experience in Central America both spiritually and emotionally depressing, but some reflection on it has changed his perspective.
“It was super hard for me,” he said. “But coming to the realization now, I could definitely connect the dots that it created a better person out of me, and I think it’s made me a better baseball player as well.”
Fully recovered from his episode in Central America, Smith was ready for baseball to consume his life again, deciding once and for all to put in the work. His mission made him realize that if he really wanted the baseball thing to happen, he was going to have to do the things he sucked at.
In the fall of 2014, Smith reached out to NYU baseball head coach Doug Kimbler to inform him of his situation. Kimbler was on board.
“As a coach starting a program you only hope you can get the interest of a player of Jake’s caliber,” Kimbler said. “I think the scare in Central America made him realize that education needed to be a big part of his decision process.”
And just like that, Jake Smith was back on track. Through the team’s first six games of the 2015 season he had a .319 batting average and swiped four bases. It seemed that Smith’s troubles were in the rearview mirror.
Then the unthinkable happened. Smith tore his right ACL, effectively ending his season.
And yet, he didn’t get discouraged.
“Even if [the injury] wasn’t a positive experience, I can still look at the rest of my life as a positive experience,” Smith said. “I thought ‘I’ll come back stronger and better next season.’ I’ve been punched before, you can punch me again.”
Kimbler said Smith’s injury was tough to watch, but that he took it the way Kimbler knew he would — by going full throttle on his rehab and working himself back to 100 percent.
“Jake knows that life is about a bunch of ups and downs and so far he has gotten back up from every one of them,” Kimbler said. “I don’t ever see that changing. “
With a season and an offseason to recover, Smith is now back to full strength. He saw it as his job to get healthy, so he kicked it into gear. He even brushed up on his baseball literature to sharpen the mental side of his game, something he had wanted to do for a long time.
Kimbler, meanwhile, seems poised to give Smith every opportunity to show why he’s a leader of this young squad, keeping them focused and leading by example.
“Jake will be Jake — he will lead,” Kimbler said. “To say the least, I expect great things from him. I am sure he would say the same thing.”
The spring season is still a few months away and ice will soon be covering the ground, but with the long layoff, Smith is anxious to get back out on the field. This time, he’s ready to prove to everyone just how much he’s grown.
“There’s a quote in the Scriptures that says ‘the rain falls on the just and the unjust,’” Smith said. “I believe that to be so true for me. Even though I was doing my best, things happen. Everyone has those trials that are exactly meant for them, so I knew that those trials were hard for me but on the other hand, I knew that I could overcome them.”
Email Alex Bazeley at [email protected]