OAKLAND — Of the 12 pitchers who have started games for the Oakland A’s in 2017, Chris Smith, the self-styled 36-year-old stay-at-home dad, is the most unlikely.
Summoned from Triple-A on July 8 for a spot start, Smith throws a four-seamer that, by big league standards, flutters in at 86 mph.
“I might not have all cool engines and tires that most of these Ferraris have around here,” Smith said, looking around the Coliseum clubhouse. “But it’s about getting out there and showing the opposing hitters what I have. It might not be electric, like some of the guys they face, but I’m attacking them with the stuff I have — my pitches, my arsenal.”
The right-hander has pitched so effectively since that emergency outing against the Seattle Mariners that the A’s have had no choice but to keep Smith around.
He tries to make batters swing-and-miss, hit his spot and always keep them guessing.
“I’m doing all those things [other pitchers are] doing,” Smith said “But I’m just doing it in my 36-year-old stay-at-home dad body.”
His manager, Bob Melvin, admits Smith isn’t supposed to be here — at least not as a starter. Smith agrees.
When Nashville Sounds manager Ryan Christensen called Smith to tell him he was facing the Seattle Mariners on the penultimate day of the first half, the super-journeyman believed it was a mistake.
“I truly thought he had me mixed up with somebody because I’ve never started in the big leagues,” Smith said, recalling the phone conversation. “So, he’s like, ‘No, I think they want you. I think you’re going.’”
The one-time fourth-round pick of the Boston Red Sox in 2002, Smith soaks up each moment he spends in the green and gold.
“This guy really, really values every day he’s here,” Melvin said. “When you’re away from it as long as he [was], and you get another taste of it, it’s just great to be around a guy like that.”
Last summer, the A’s selected Smith’s contract from Nashville, and he produced a 2.92 ERA in 13 games, striking out 29 in 24.2 innings.
When he debuted for the A’s on Aug. 7, it was the first time in 2,246 days that Smith had stepped on a big-league mound.
“It’s a huge pat on the back. It’s a personal slap on the butt,” Smith said of his long-awaited return. “It’s like, ‘Hey, you did a good job.’ Good job for not quitting. Good job for not getting down on yourself. Good job for staying the course and it’s a sigh of like, ‘Wow, I did it.’”
During that more than six-year gap, Smith spent time pitching for minor league affiliates of the Milwaukee Brewers, Mariners and San Diego Padres. He also pitched in Venezuela one winter. He spent 2013 starting for the Wichita Wingnuts in independent ball and even moonlighted as a coach.
All the while, Smith never thought about giving up — even as he simultaneously conceded that he never thought he’d return to the majors.
“I was in independent ball. I played winter ball,” Smith said. “When I got back into pro ball, there were days when you had bad days, but it wasn’t like, ‘What am I doing here?’”
“There was none of that because I wasn’t looking at it like, ‘OK, the big leagues are right around the corner so I can’t stop,’” Smith said. “It was more like, ‘Me. My baseball. I don’t want my baseball to stop.’”
For Smith, joining the A’s via a minor league deal after the 2015 season was an easy decision. All it took was a call from assistant general manager Dan Feinstein.
“I think I was with my family at Disneyland and I talked to Mr. Feinstein and he’s like, ‘Hey, we’d like to have you over here,” Smith said. “And I was like, ‘OK, sounds good. I’m in line getting churros. Can I call you right back?’”
Smith called back and the deal was reached.
“He said, ‘Hey, if you have any questions [let me know], but we’re very interested in you,’” Smith said. “And I said, ‘OK, that’s all it takes. You’re interested. You want me. I’m coming.”
With injured starters Kendall Graveman and Jharel Cotton edging back to the rotation and Chris Bassitt inching toward the finish line of his protracted recovery from Tommy John surgery, there’s no telling how long Smith will maintain his starting spot. Not that he’s worried about that.
“I kid you not. Every time my family drops me off, it feels like I’m coming into the clubhouse for the first time,” Smith said. “It’s awesome. I’m just as giddy and just as happy as Day 1 and … I don’t think too far ahead.”
“I’m just trying to have fun today and enjoy the day. If I get tomorrow, I get tomorrow.”