Sunday, July 12, 2015


If you are looking for Harrison Smith, head over to Wendell Black high school. It is one block from where Harrison lives and it has a field with a major league sized baseball diamond. There, on most late afternoons, you can hear the unmistakeable sound of a baseball and bat making perfect contact. Time after time. Day after day.

I am today's witness. The pitcher is a former Triple A player, six foot six inches tall, an all-American specimen, looking every inch the baseball god he never quite was. At the plate is a much smaller version of the hurler, a person standing only five foot three but clearly cut from the same cloth. He looks remarkably composed as he redirects fastballs, curves and change-ups to all fields, as if on command. Left field, left field, left field. Center, then again and once more. On this day, one drive soars in the sky and lands more than 350 feet from its launching pad. Harrison Smith is 11 years old.

Seminole is a small city in southern Florida. Its population is 18,000 give or take whoever may have decided that this locale is either the perfect place to settle in or the most boring intolerable corner of the earth. It is decidedly Republican, decidedly religious and, even though two Major Leaguers played their high school baseball here, definitely not a place scouts frequent. Until now.

Tom Fisher played for three teams from 1959 through 1968. The last was the Yankees. Since his retirement, he has spent nearly half a century employed by the Bombers, criss-crossing the country evaluating the talents of thousands of potential Babe Ruths and Cy Youngs. "I have seen all of them growing up. Reggie, Winfield, A-Rod, Jeter, Harper, Trout. Harrison Smith has the potential to be better than anyone who has played this sport in my lifetime. A lot better."

In 1944, major league rosters were substantially depleted by the call of war. On June 10 of that year, 15 year old Joe Nuxhall became the youngest person to perform in the big show. In the ninth inning, with his team trailing 13-0, he pawed the mound, not old enough to shave, but of sufficient skill to be called a major leaguer. From everything that my eyes told me, and from all I learned from the experts who had seen Harrison Smith in action, he could shatter that record if given the chance.

Rob Manfred became Commissioner of Major League baseball in January of 2015. A graduate of Harvard Law school, Manfred has been working in various capacities for the league for nearly 30 years. He believes that the structures in place regarding age limits for entry into the game serve a necessary purpose. "Essentially, one can not be eligible for the draft until the age of 16. You know, the last player who was less than 19 years old to reach the majors was A-Rod. And that was over 20 years ago. Players must mature not only physically but emotionally before they can be expected to deal with the rigors and demands of being on the big stage. I have heard the legend of Harrison Smith, and have seen video of this young man. While his skills are undeniable, even if he is possessed of the most extraordinary talent, it will be many years before we ever see him don a big league uniform. I will categorically not consider a "Harrison Smith" rule."

Forty minutes after he began doing damage to the offerings of his father, Harrison gently laid down the bat. He headed out to the shortstop position, hand in glove. All except the index finger which poked out, separating itself from the other digits on his left hand.

Standing at first base was the starting first baseman for the Seminole Fighting 'Noles high school team. He had requested an audience with the young Mr. Smith, and so he stood ready for action. Tim Smith, all six foot six of him, picked up the same 34 inch, 30 ounce bat that had just been released from the grasp of his son, and began hammering balls in the general direction of shortstop.

Harrison was situated on the edge of the outfield grass, slightly deeper than the position taken by most major league shortstops. As balls came with relentless force, not at him, but to either side, he glided without seeming effort, snatched each one cleanly and made throws with such unerring precision to first base that the starting first baseman for the Seminole Fighting 'Noles high school team appeared almost frozen in time and space. The only issue for him was the force of the object that  exploded in his mitt, again and again and then again. After thirty minutes, the starting first baseman for the Seminole Fighting 'Noles high school team literally begged to be freed from what had now become an exceedingly uncomfortable obligation.

Dr. Peter Thompson is a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Washington University Medical Center is St. Louis. He performs an average of 12 surgeries per week on children as young as age seven. Almost all of the work is on athletes suffering from repetitive stress injuries on still developing bodies. There are an estimated 1.3 million such sports related injuries each year.

When asked the  risk that Harrison Smith would suffer some kind of "overuse" injury, Dr. Thompson stated "It is almost a given. If he maintains the level of intense workout described through his teenage years, there is a 90% chance that a knee or a shoulder, or an elbow will be adversely impacted to the extent that he will be on my operating table, or one of the ever growing population of others like me who spend their entire career repairing damage that likely could have been avoided."

Tim Smith didn't agree with Dr. Thompson's assessment.  "He has never seen my child, he does not know my child and he does not know what Harrison is doing. Baseball is in his blood and you cannot tell me, or tell him, that he is placing unusual risks on his body. When did we become such an overprotective society? Let the children play. Let them do what comes naturally to them. Or would you rather he was inside, staring at a computer screen all day?"

Harrison Smith just completed fifth grade in elementary school in Seminole.  Twenty four children were in his graduating class, an equal number of boys and girls. Samantha Winston sat immediately to the left of Harrison in the third row of their classroom. Samantha finds Harrison "interesting" and he thinks she is "cute". In another year of two they may become an item. But not yet.

The median household income in Seminole is $48,000.  There are no rich enclaves in this town, no wealthy patrons. Nike has recently contacted Tim Smith about entering into a long term deal to have Harrison as a paid representative of their company. It is believed that the total compensation could exceed twenty million dollars. Tim Smith works as a mechanic in the automobile repair shop on Main Street, less than 2 miles from the small three bedroom ranch house in which the family lives. Barbara Smith is a substitute teacher in the elementary school. Last year, the family earned $43,000.

Sam Halstead is a senior executive at Nike, responsible for finding young extraordinary talent to add to their stable of clients. When asked why the company would consider signing someone as young as Harrison, given the vast uncertainty of his ever appearing in a Major League baseball game due to injury, burnout, diminishing talent or just bad luck, Halstead was unequivocal in his response. "Harrison Smith comes along once, maybe twice, in a generation. This is a young man who can rewrite the history of his sport if the stars align. If that happens, who won't spend whatever it takes to have their company's products associated with that name. We are well aware of the risks of failure but the chance of immortality far outweighs any negatives that you, or I might see. We are in the risk taking business, and for my money, for my company's money, Harrison Smith is well worth the gamble."

Legend has it that Harrison threw his first baseball at eight months old. Ten feet in the air and right into the waiting hand of his father. Tim says this is just pure fantasy. "He was nine months old when this happened."

Todd Marvin Marinovich was raised in Newport Beach California. His father, Marv, was captain of the national championship football team at USC in 1962. His future wife's brother was the star quarterback.

Todd Marinovich was an experiment in greatness. Sports Ilustrated published a piece on him called "Bred to be a Superstar" when Marinovich was in high school. Athletic training commenced when he was still in the crib and did not stop throughout his adolescence. Todd was fed fresh vegetables, fruit and raw milk. Nothing else. Ever. 

He was the All- American boy, the star blond quarterback and virtually every big time college pursued him. Marinovich also ended up at USC with expectations that were nurtured from his first day on earth by his father. But he was not without blemish. As early as high school, he was drinking and smoking marijuana and not in control of either. He was arrested for cocaine possession even before arriving at USC.

And while his college career was good, very good, it was not exactly what his father had envisioned. And substance abuse followed him into the NFL. After three seasons, the can't miss robo-quarterback, created out of the mind of his father, had become a Frankenstein. His career in football was essentially at an end. Life after football did not improve, drugs and arrests following him everywhere, always at his feet, always ready to devour him.

Today, Todd Marinovich lives with his wife and two young children. He has tried to redefine himself and his existence. He now toils as an artist and has begun to receive some acclaim for work in a field far removed from the one that brought him such tremendous highs and terrible lows.  He was reluctant to talk about himself, or his father, preferring not to dwell on past glories or tragic moments.  However, when asked about Harrison Smith, he said "I hope for his sake that what is motivating him comes from inside. I fear for all young athletes who seem too regimented, too programmed that what is happening is not of their own doing. If that is the case for Harrison Smith then there will surely come a day when it all starts to unravel. He needs to be who he is and not who anyone else wants him to be.  If he is but a projection of someone else, his sense of self will disappear."

Tim Smith is not happy or comfortable when the issue of comparison to Todd Marinovich is raised. "What they did, they did. I can only do what makes my son happy and I know that playing baseball makes him happy. The expectations are yours, not his. Or mine. If greatness happens, it happens. If not, there is a long life that has to be lived. And lived the right way."

Eldrick Tont "Tiger" Woods first entered our collective consciousness at the ripe old age of two.  He appeared on the "Mike Douglas Show" and took part in a putting contest with a well known sometime golfer by the name of Bob Hope. Tiger's father, Earl, had, much like Marv Marinovich,  determined that his son was destined for greatness and should become comfortable with the expectations from his first moments. 

Tiger broke 50 for nine holes at three, and 80 for a full round at eight. He went on to become everything that had been envisioned for him shattering records and the will of opponents with seeming unequaled success. Earl Woods had decreed that his son would better the record established by the king of his generation, Jack Nicklaus. And for a long time,  that achievement appeared a mere formality.

After Earl's death in 2006, the victories came for a while but then, in what seemed a blink of an eye, it began to fall apart. Marital infidelity of epic proportion surfaced and the uncompromising focus and resolve that had marked Tiger's career evaporated. With his father gone, his marriage in tatters and his psyche compromised, Tiger's invincibility vanished. Had all the attention and adulation from what must have been his first recollections, finally been too much? Had Earl pushed too long, too hard, or was it that his son was mere mortal after all? It is far from certain that this Humpty-Dumpty can ever be put back together.

When talk turns to Tiger,  Tim Smith tries, once more to deflect  attention away from the issue of the overbearing parent and the child star. "I am not here to justify my existence or my choices. This is a good solid family and our life is not all about baseball, even as many would try to make me, make us, something we are not."

And indeed, the family's house shows little to suggest that there is anything unusual happening with Harrison. His room does have two posters in it, but neither are of baseball players. They instead, show members of the band, "One Direction" on stage. Harrison has never been to a concert, both his parents agreeing that at age 11, he is too young to be anywhere near one of these performances. The family goes to church together every Sunday, and Harrison attends religious classes each week. 

Only in the small closet in Harrison's room is there evidence of his attachment to baseball. Three gloves and five bats are stacked up, in no discernible pattern, or with any particular care. Harrison is, after all, 11.

At five years old, at a time when those his age were trying to hit a baseball off a tee and learning where to stand on the field, Harrison Smith was playing second base on a team of eight and nine year olds. He was the best player, able to turn a double play, hit to all fields and bunt a runner over. 

By six, the first article about Harrison appeared. The Seminole Gazette headline read, "Local Boy is Baseball Phenom in the Making." It quoted Tom Winston, Harrison's Little League coach who said he had never seen anything like this in all his years around the game. The league had bent its rules and allowed a first grader to join a squad of 11 and 12 year olds. And make the All-Star team. And hit .550.

What does Harrison Smith think about all that is happening? As you might expect, I did not get the chance to ask him that question, or any other question. "My son is 11 years old. It is not the time in his life to be doing interviews, to be cross-examined, to have every word analyzed and dissected. He is a kid, and he is entitled to be a kid."

There is no baseball academy in Harrison's life, nor does it appear there will be one anytime soon. Tim Smith says that while he is considering the offer from Nike he does not know how he will move forward. Harrison has no agent, no PR person, no world outside of the one he is living in Seminole.

For now, he is like millions of children his age. Today I watched him play baseball with his father, hitting and throwing, running and jumping, smiling and laughing. He is just like all those others who are in their yards, on a street, an empty lot or a field. Just a boy and his dad playing together. Only better than everyone else. Much better.

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