HIGH ACHIEVERS: Stay-Safe Edition
Keeping Local Sport Spirit High During the Pandemic
By Martin Cleary
When the National Capital Baseball League opens its 29-team, four-tier adult loop next week, the Braves will have a serious void in their lineup and former Panther team players also will experience that feeling of emptiness.
Multi-talented Steve Smith, the only player to compete in the league’s Tier 1 division every season since it was formed in 1990, passed away June 21, after an eight-month ordeal with pancreatic cancer. He turned 51 on May 26.
Smith, who along with his peers missed the 2020 NCBL season because of the COVID-19 pandemic, would have been entering his 31st season and hoping there were more on the horizon. But cancer struck last fall.
As his obituary read: “He will always be known as the nicest player on the field, beloved and respected by his teammates and opponents alike.”
No matter where his manager asked him to play, he would happily take the field as a middle infielder, outfielder or pitcher.
Smith played the majority of his career with the Panthers, who folded three years ago as a mix of young and older players, who couldn’t sustain playing at the NCBL’s top tier. He celebrated four playoff championships (2002, 2003, 2011 and 2014) with the Panthers.
His baseball skills saw him win the NCBL’s Tier 1 batting title in 1994 and the Ron Quesnel Trophy in 2014 as the best player combining ability and sportsmanship. In 2019, he was recognized with a NCBL Career Achievement award.
Longevity combined with talent allowed Smith to put his name on numerous career top-20 lists. The most notable is his number of games played, which stood at about 430 in the 2018 season. He also was a top-20 player in plate appearances (1,126), hits (302), and doubles (54).
As a pitcher, he was highly respected by opposing hitters. He posted 263 strikeouts in 436 innings and 28 career wins and 25 losses. He also earned 11 career saves, which ranked him No. 6 in that category.
“He was one of the nicest human beings to play in the NCBL,” Keith Bray, a former Panthers teammate and manager, said in a phone interview. “There’s not a player on the opposing team who would say an ill word about him. He played the game properly and did the right thing.”
Panthers alumni recently gathered at Bray’s house to remember Smith and share stories about the likeable all-around player. It was a different version of the Panther Pit, which usually occurred after each game and featured a round or two of cold beers.
Fittingly, this Panther Pit was staged in the Bray Bullpen, which he built to help his two daughters develop their baseball skills. After the Panthers dissolved as the second-oldest NCBL team, Smith went to the Braves, who will remember him after their 2021 opener on Tuesday.
The NCBL, which was created after the merger of the Senior Interprovincial Baseball League and the Ottawa Recreational Baseball league, profiled Smith on its website in 2018. The question-and-answer session gave great insight into the family man and baseball player.
After he graduated from Little League Baseball, a friend gave Smith’s name to Panthers recruiter John Kohli, who quickly had him working out in the team bullpen with Steve Tsonos. Pitching and playing shortstop were his favourite assignments.
“I’ve always just considered myself a baseball player,” Smith wrote three years ago for his Q-and-A profile. “That being said, the only time I didn’t look forward to coming into pitch is if I was playing the outfield and making a bunch of long throws beforehand.”
Smith, who had a good sense of humour, said: “Obviously, my physical conditioning is second to none and I doubt many in the league could keep up to me.”, but he pinpointed the reason for his league longevity was just playing smart.
“In reality, the two things that probably have helped is I haven’t been a full-time player in about 10 seasons – less wear and tear, but probably doesn’t help my game – and coaching kids,” he added at the time.
“I’ve thrown lots of BP (batting practice), which probably has helped my arm – who knows, I may throw harder than I did in my 30s – and just teaching kids skills reminds you about some aspects of the game you may have forgotten.”
At the end of the interview, Smith was asked about his future as a NCBL Tier 1 player. He had one wish that would have run parallel to the Howes of Hockey (sons Marty and Mark playing with father Gordie).
“Every year could be the last, but I always seemed to do something that lets me think I could last another year,” he continued. “I have two boys (Carter and Brayden) playing baseball and the oldest (the former) turns 13 this summer (2018).
“It always seemed foolish to think I could play with him, but now it doesn’t seem so farfetched. Maybe I’ll even stick around in Tier 1, but I think those days are coming to an end, so I may have to put an ad on Facebook looking for a beer-drinking team one of these years.”
Smith’s favourite aspect of the NCBL is simply that it exists.
“Without it I don’t know what I would’ve done the last (29) years. Typing that makes it seem like a long time, and I suppose the friends I’ve made are a good thing, too.”
He was most proud that his teammates “seemed to like me and not want me to quit even as my skills have diminished.”
Despite being a dependable, competitive player, Smith gathered most of his good memories from off-field experiences.
“Which as a parent, who has kids in sports, is a good perspective to remember,” he would write. “Win or lose those will often be forgotten and it is everything else that comes with playing the sport that will be remembered.”
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 48 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @martincleary.