White Sox catcher Smith glad he called career audible as Pitt QB
With the White Sox off Monday, catcher Kevan Smith went home to western Pennsylvania and found his mind wandering on the drive past the University of Pittsburgh campus where he spent three years playing quarterback.
“It brought back familiar feelings, the memories of training camp when I was puking and miserable, dryheaving,” recalled Smith, a 6-foot-4, 230-pounder who played for coach Dave Wannstedt at Pitt. “And after passing the field I was like, ‘Oh my God. OK, let’s go back to baseball where I belong.’”
Smith returned the Sox lineup Tuesday and enjoyed his best game of his promising season with a home run, double and four RBIs against the Astros. During a rebuilding process in which the only constant is change, Smith, 29, offers the moxie and leadership the Sox need behind the plate as they indoctrinate their hot pitching prospects, starting Friday with Reynaldo Lopez.
“He has continued to improve,” Sox manager Rick Renteria said. “There’s something to be said about tenacity. Anything is possible, even for Kevan Smith.”
Wannstedt sensed something special about Smith’s personality from his first recruiting visit to Cranberry Township, Pa. Baseball was Smith’s first love but football — introduced accidentally when a relative signed him up as a boy — offered a free college education.
“Kevan was smart, tough as nails and had a big-time arm,” said Wannstedt, the former Bears and Dolphins coach who led Pitt from 2005-2010. “We were in such bad shape that he was forced to play early. I’m not sure that was fair to him.”
An injury to Pitt’s starting quarterback thrust Smith into action in the second game of his redshirt freshman season in a 34-10 victory over Grambling. Lining up alongside future NFL star running back LeSean McCoy, Smith responded by completing 15 of 22 passes for 202 yards — breaking Dan Marino’s freshman record.
“I tell everybody I didn’t do much in football but in the Pitt record books, under passing yards by a freshman in a game, it says Kevan Smith and the next name is Dan Marino,” Smith said, pumping his fist. “That’s my mark in Pitt football history.”
Much of the rest of Smith’s college football career — six games at quarterback in 2007-08 — he would like to erase. A 17-13 loss at Michigan State before a crowd of 68,680 featured Smith throwing a Pick-6 and having a wide receiver drop a potential game-winning touchdown pass. Upon returning to campus, Smith discovered a Facebook group devoted to hating him.
“I was ridiculed to death,” Smith said. “It was hard not to get caught up in the social media. If I could go back, I would have blocked it out. It was a learning experience, bigtime. I learned to believe in myself.”
A defeat at Notre Dame Stadium the following season taught more tough lessons. Excited after practicing all week with Pitt’s No. 1 offense, Smith played only one series for reasons he still can’t explain.
“I never knew why I didn’t play more at Notre Dame but I joke I completed a pass, handed the ball off and threw the ball into the band there,” Smith said.
By the end of 2008, Smith had bulked up to 250 pounds. He recalled being “stronger than my linemen.” So with the lure of baseball pulling Smith away from spring football practice, he approached Wannstedt about becoming a long-snapper to keep his scholarship playing both sports. Wannstedt suggested tight end. Ultimately, both men agreed Smith becoming a full-time catcher made the most sense for his future.
“My buddy Joe Jordano, the baseball coach, was always needling me to give Kevan up and it wasn’t two weeks after he was out that Joe said he was the best guy (he had),” Wannstedt said.
The Sox saw similar potential in the All-Big East catcher, taking Smith in the seventh round of the 2011 draft. A late bloomer, Smith finally stuck with the Sox after back and knee injuries ruined 2016. The more comfortable Smith gets, the more fortunate he feels to have completed what he called a “crazy” path to the majors.
“A lot of guys get in the box and go, ‘Dude, you played Division I football? Wow,’ “Smith said. “It’s comical to me people are more fascinated that I was a college quarterback. I’m like, ‘Come on, we’re in the big leagues. This is much cooler.’”
Old habits die hard and Smith still wears an Under Armour wristband carrying handwritten reminders about hitters the way it used to carry football plays. Smith saw former Cubs catcher David Ross wearing one last year so, now, Smith consults his cheat sheet between batters to call a smarter game.
“I was standing on second and (Astros second baseman) Jose Altuve yelled, ‘Hey, what’s that thing say?’ And I said, ‘It says to throw you heaters, Altuve,’ “Smith said, laughing. “It just brings a sense of peace and confidence calling pitches.”
It appears to be working. Before veteran Derek Holland’s start Tuesday, coach Don Cooper wanted to go over the scouting report with the Sox lefty.
“I got a hell of a compliment when Holland said, ‘I’m good, I trust everything “Smitty” does,’” Smith said.
Every day, that becomes a little easier for the Sox to do.
White Sox catcher Kevan Smith, top, looks to the runners after the force-out on the Red Sox’s Xander Bogaerts, left, on a ground ball by Mookie Betts during the fifth inning Aug. 4 in Boston.