Friday, April 06, 2001

Diamond was rough on Akili

Cinergy trip stirs memories for former Pirates farmhand

By Mark Curnutte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Akili Smith makes his way to his seat at the Reds game Thursday afternoon.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
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        Akili Smith couldn't remember the last time he'd been to a baseball game, and it showed even before he took his seat Thursday at Cinergy Field.

        The Bengals quarterback, who played in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization for 2 1/2 years, bought a small pizza and a bottle of water at a concession stand and was shocked by the cost.

        “It was $8.75,” he said. “Unbelievable.”

        Told the bill would have been comparable down the riverfront at Paul Brown Stadium, Smith said, “I guess I'm seeing things from the outside looking in.”

        Smith took a look back at his short baseball career while watching the Pirates lose 4-1 to the Reds. He got to the game late because the voluntary workout for Bengals quarterbacks and receivers ran long.

  Akili Smith's baseball memories include:
  • Favorite players: Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Tony Gwynn.
  • Favorite teams: Hometown San Diego Padres and Pittsburgh Pirates.
  • Favorite ballpark: Royals Stadium in Kansas City. “The one with the waterfall in the outfield.”
  • First game: His father, Ray Smith, took Akili when he was 7 to see the Padres play in San Diego. Akili can't remember who the Padres played or who won. “We sat out in the outfield. I sat there with my glove on hoping the ball would come my way.”
  • Best memory as a fan: Kirk Gibson's pinch-hit home run in the first game of the 1988 World Series for the Dodgers against the Athletics. “Kirk Gibson came off the bench to hit that home run to win the game. I saw it on TV.”
  • Baseball regret: “The game got the best of me. It's a tough game. Three out of 10 is good.”
  • Unfilled baseball moment: “Not getting Tony Gwynn's autograph.”
        By the bottom of the fourth, Smith - pizza and bottled water in hand - found his seat along the third-base line.

        “There's A.B.,” Smith said of Pirates center fielder Adrian Brown. “We went through spring training together.”

        The only other Pirates player Smith knew was catcher Jason Kendall. “Tough guy,” Smith said. “A real hard-nosed catcher.”

        The Pirates drafted Smith as a catcher in the seventh round in 1993. He was a defensive standout who hit for power at San Diego's Lincoln High.

        Smith received $55,000 to sign a $125,000 total contract with the Pirates, who shipped him across the country to rookie-league ball in Bradenton, Fla., and switched him to left field.

        “They didn't tell me,” he said. “I was running around out there like a chicken with their head cut off. I couldn't judge a fly ball.”

        He hit .130 his first season. “I was thinking too much,” Smith said. “It would have been more natural to be a catcher.”

        He was 17 and homesick, living in a hotel room so sparse there was no phone. They had to be up for breakfast and were assigned lunch and dinner times. “Like being locked down,” he said.

        He spent what off-time he had in a nearby phone booth talking to his parents and fighting off South Florida's huge mosquitoes. “I had to wrap a towel around my neck,” he said. “My phone bill was outrageous, like $800 a month.”

        Smith's mind was on his first love, football. He was playing baseball for his father.

        Ray Smith was drafted by the California Angels out of Lincoln High in the early 1970s but turned down $7,500 plus $750 a month to play minor-league ball. Ray thought it was too low. Shortly thereafter, his baseball dreams died when a judge sentenced him to almost two years in jail for arranging the getaway car for two friends who had just robbed a Big Boy of $1,400.

        “I wanted Akili to go to baseball because I was living my life through him,” Ray Smith said Thursday night.

        “It was, "Son, let's do what Tony Banks did,'” Akili said. “I think my dad forced baseball on me.”

        Banks tried baseball first. He played in the Minnesota Twins farm system for a couple of years before going into football, eventually quarterbacking St. Louis and Baltimore before recently signing with Dallas. Banks' dad and Ray Smith are friends.

        In his second season, Smith adjusted to the outfield and raised his average to .270, earning a promotion to Single-A Erie, Pa. Still, his heart wasn't in it.

        “I'd call home, and it was, "Keep trying, son. Keep trying,'” Akili Smith said.

        He returned to Single-A for his third season. But halfway through, he was released.

        “The manager called me and asked me what I was going to do with my life, and I said, "Go play football.'”

        Smith played football at Grossmont Junior College for two years before transferring to Oregon. He burst onto the scene as a senior and into the first round of the 1999 draft, where the Bengals took him third overall.

        He started four games as a rookie, when the Bengals still played at Cinergy, on the artificial turf. Smith admired the natural grass the Reds installed this year once the Bengals moved out. He wondered aloud if grass might have saved the end of his first NFL season, which was cut short when he suffered a turf toe on Halloween.

        “My toe got pushed down in the rug,” he said.

        Smith's second season also ended in disappointment. By Game 10, he lost his job to Scott Mitchell, and Smith went into a media freeze-out and faded into the background.

        It was only during Thursday's seventh-inning stretch that a grandmother sitting near Smith in the box seats recognized him. She was there with her grandson, Zachary, and asked Smith for an autograph. He gladly signed.

        The woman sent the 3-year-old down the aisle to shake Smith's hand. Smith did, smiled and waved to his grandmother.

        “No problem,” he said.

        Smith marveled at the quickness and arm strength of Reds second baseman Pokey Reese. He spoke with respect of Barry Larkin.

        “He's the ultimate pro,” Smith said of the Reds shortstop. “Nobody says anything bad about him. He's married. He's active in the community. As a young pro yourself, you want to pattern yourself after a guy like that. You can't last in the pros for 16 years without doing something right.”

        Little has gone right for Smith in the NFL. He had the lowest passer rating of any regular quarterback last year. He was picked up on a DUI charge in San Diego in February.

        Bengals coach Dick LeBeau and assistant Ken Anderson have told him not to put too much pressure on himself this season. They tell him he's young, developing and learning.

        Smith isn't so easy on himself, though he said he welcomes the competition from Jon Kitna and likes the free agent recently signed by the Bengals.

        “I see it as a make-or-break year for me,” Smith said. “I'm pushing myself.“

        He'll be back at work today, throwing to Bengals receivers at the other end of the riverfront. But Thursday was a time to enjoy baseball. There was a time, though, he couldn't.

        “The game,” he said, “got the best of me.”

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