The whims of baseball have blown Will Smith all over the map. He’s been a Cedar Rapids Kernel, a Rancho Cucamonga Quake, a Northwest Arkansas Natural. He’s played the big room, too, from Kansas City to Milwaukee to San Francisco. Still, wherever he landed, no matter how green and promising, that place could never be The Place.
That could only be the place to which he was born. Because, even more than a follower of his hometown team, the man is a Braves legacy.
When Charles Smith is explaining his family’s attachment to the Braves, the team that just signed his son to be the final piece of a formidable bullpen, it gets downright primal. “I was at the first game in 1966, sitting down the third-base line. Had on a red shirt, I remember all that,” he said. He was 11 at the time.
“They got beat. The Pirates beat ’em.” Multiple losses would follow.
So, you begin at the very first game played once the Braves moved south from Milwaukee, right there at the dawn of their re-creation. And then work forward about three decades. Charles passed down the Braves gene to his boy Will, a trait that seems to be about as dominant as brown eyes.
A lefty, the kid wore No. 47 at the youth level in tribute to Tom Glavine, and did until Glavine became a Met. As father and son made the long drive from their Coweta County home to play for a season at East Cobb Baseball, they passed by Turner Field. And more often than not the boy said out loud, “I’m going to play there one day.”
Around here, stadiums don’t have the staying power of dreams. By the time Will Smith made good on the vow – and signed a three-year, $40 million free-agent deal with the Braves – he’s bound to play in the next county, Cobb.
The Braves didn’t have a nice little homecoming story in mind when they signed Smith – that was but a bonus. What they were more interested in was the ability he had shown these past couple of seasons with the Giants as a left-hander who locks down games in the late innings. Some numbers for those two seasons: 48 saves, 167 strikeouts, 36 walks, 2.66 ERA.
The scouting report from Mark Melancon, fellow Braves reliever and a former teammate in San Francisco, does nothing to diminish all the enthusiasm that is building behind this bullpen.
“He’s aggressive. He’s coming right at you. He’s got good angle. He’s got pinpoint accuracy. A wipeout slider. He’s not scared to pitch in. He’s got everything,” Melancon said.
As of the moment, the roles in that bullpen are not fleshed out. Melancon – who is still loosely identified as the closer – Shane Greene and Smith all have closing experience. There is an interchangeable quality to this ’pen that makes trying to line up these guys in February a fruitless exercise. But you don’t figure they made Smith a cornerstone signing to do unimportant work. He’s getting high-leverage money.
One guy who will testify to Smith’s fit, wherever that may be, is his coach – now retired – at Newnan’s Northgate High.
Greg Hamilton still likes to coach up his guys even after they’re long grown and gone. Case in point, as Smith was heading to Florida, Hamilton texted the message: “Don’t let anybody out-work you.”
And the coach was buoyed by Smith’s response: “Time to go win a ring.”
“Will’s going to do his part no matter what that is,” Hamilton said. “If he’s the eighth-inning guy, he’ll try to be the best eight-inning guy you’ve got. If he’s the closer – which I think he loves to do – he’s going to give you everything he’s got there.”
It is believed that this homecoming will be more productive than the quite brief one back in May 2015 when Smith came through town with Milwaukee. With Turner Field stocked with family and friends, Smith came on in the seventh inning and hit the first batter he faced. Before he was done with the second, he was being shown the gate. Then-Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez complained about a foreign substance that stood out on one arm like a neon smear, hardly concealed. It was a concoction of pine tar and rosin that Smith said he forgot to wipe off before leaving the bullpen. He didn’t leave the field before spouting a few choice words toward the Braves dugout.
The incident is forgiven and forgotten, Smith said: “Oh, yeah. That’s baseball. That was my hometown team, everybody was in the stands, all my family. That was a tough one. That wasn’t my proudest moment, but you learn from it and move on.”
Apropos of nothing, here are a couple of other tidbits about the newest member of the bullpen:
Smith is a career 1.000 hitter in the majors. In two plate appearances last season, the first in 324 appearances as a National Leaguer, he put up a sacrifice and a two-run single. So, just saying, here’s an emergency, if hardly used, bat the Braves can call on.
And, there are no half measures to his fandom when it comes to one other Atlanta team. Smith should have known better when he went up to Cleveland with a buddy, a Browns fan, to watch the Falcons play in 2018. But he did it anyway. The two of them struck a bet: Loser has to take a dip in Lake Erie.
Naturally the Falcons lost. A man of his word, Smith waded into the lake. In November. In Cleveland.
Better judgment is required now in his dealings with the Braves.
In general, Smith has not made a big production of his return home.
To his parents, it’s huge. When their son was playing on the west coast, they’d set their alarm for 12:45 a.m. to get up and check on the Giants game. “If he had a chance to pitch, we’d set up the rest of the night watching,” Charles Smith said. “If he does good, you’re so pumped you can’t go back to sleep. Then if he had a bad outing, you’d feel so bad you couldn’t go back to sleep.” Their sleep patterns will normalize now.
To the high school coach who knew him when, it is heart-warming. “His dream coming out of high school was for the Braves to sign him,” Hamilton said. Instead, he went to a community college in the Florida panhandle for a year and then entered the pro pipeline as a seventh-round pick of the Angels.
For his part, Will Smith doesn’t flaunt his roots. “I grew up in Georgia, I grew up a Braves fan, but at the end of the day I’m going to do the same thing if I was still in California or anywhere else,” he said.
“You’re here to win, here to get to the playoffs and all that stuff. Being on the hometown team that you grew up cheering for isn’t really going to change that. I happen to play for the Braves now. I’m obviously really excited about it and excited to see family more often. But at the end of the day you still have a job to do.”
His father is no genealogist, but he just doesn’t know a time when his family wasn’t in or around Coweta County, just south of Atlanta. His wife’s side, too. And nobody’s going anywhere else – Will and his fiancée are moving into a nice new place in Moreland.
In this life and maybe beyond, the Smith family is very happy about the chain of events that has landed one of their own back home. On Will’s right arm is an ornate tattoo celebrating certain “Angels in the Outfield” – otherwise known as his maternal grandparents. On a chain around his neck he wears the wedding ring of his late grandfather, one of those grandfathers who seemed to be at every game and almost every practice until one day he wasn’t. Oh, yeah, Jimmy Windom was a big Braves fan, too.
“He’s pumped,” Smith said. “He’s smiling for sure. He’s got his front-row seat all ready.
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