Bill Ballew 2015-11-24 04:46:20
Few true legends exist in any athletic arena. The reasons are multi-fold, most notably the rare combination of superior athletic ability emerging at the proper time when the passion for a fledgling sport is bubbling under the surface, just waiting for those special talents and their personalities to take the game to the next level in the public’s consciousness. Yet becoming a legend requires more than a temporary burst onto the scene. Staying power is just as critical. In order to achieve that, the star performer must maintain a high level of play for an extended period and then continue to give back to the sport even after their playing days come to an end. Only then can someone be deemed a true legend, a description that fits Michele Smith to the proverbial T. “I love the sport of softball and I respect the sport,” Smith said. “It gave me a lot while I was on the field and it continues to off the field simply because it helps you build relationships with people. I think it’s great to see young women who can find their identity by being a ballplayer. “I always like to say that softball is what I do, it’s not who I am. But it does help build who I am because it’s a great teacher. I try to relay that message to young athletes because sometimes we can get caught up in and worry about the wrong things. There has to be a little bit of forgiveness. Sometimes we can get so performance-oriented that we forget all of the other great things softball is giving us. It’s not just the batting average and ERA.” Smith’s cerebral assessment of fastpitch softball is not a surprise to anyone who had the privilege of watching her dominant performances in the circle or at the plate, including stellar showings on the collegiate, professional and Olympic stages. Her instincts and talents on the diamond were honed while growing up in New Jersey and playing catch with her dad. Long before she had any idea that softball might play an important role in her life, Smith experienced the passion for an activity that was centered mostly on males when she was an adolescent. “I always loved baseball and softball, playing catch with my dad all through high school,” Smith said. “Once I started to pitch, which wasn’t until my sophomore year of high school, I knew I wanted to earn a scholarship in order to help my parents out. As I progressed and got better, I started to aim higher with some of my goals while trying to become better and help my teams become better. I wanted to represent the United States and wear that red, white and blue. I grew up in a very rural area where I was always doing a lot of chores and different things but I was always a very driven person. I think all of those things played a big part in my life while I was growing up.” A three-sport athlete at Voorhees High School who played field hockey and basketball in addition to softball, Smith excelled in fastpitch while posting a 46-6 record and earning all-state honors on the diamond for each of her last three seasons. Her performance earned Smith the opportunity to play for head coach Sandy Fischer at Oklahoma State, where she received First Team All-America recognition as a utility player in 1988 and as a pitcher in 1989. She also was selected to the All-Big Eight team three times, the all-region team twice and the Big Eight all-tournament team three times, including Most Valuable Player honors in 1989. Along the way Smith tossed a program-best nine no-hitters, including two perfect games, and ranked among the top 10 in 16 offensive and pitching categories for both a single season and career. The lefthander posted 26 victories in two separate campaigns, established the school mark with 82 career triumphs, is tied for second with 10 career triples, and ranks second with 46 career shutouts. She capped her time with the Cowgirls by leading them to the Women’s College World Series in 1989, where OSU finished third and Smith was named to the All-WCWS team. Despite her achievements at OSU, Smith’s accomplishments did not come without overcoming a major obstacle. On July 21, 1986, while home in New Jersey during a school break, Michele and her father were returning from an appointment with an oral surgeon. The truck’s door opened on a turn, and Smith was thrown into a roadside post. Her pitching arm was injured, resulting in a broken elbow and severed muscles in her triceps that affected the nerve endings. Nine months of intensive rehabilitation followed before she returned triumphantly to the circle while throwing three miles per hour faster than prior to the accident. “The accident was between my freshman and sophomore year,” Smith said. “It made me realize that my importance as a person was greater than the importance of my ability to throw a softball. Again, so many kids wrap up their identity in what they are doing instead of who they are as a person. And that event made me realize that I’m going to be a person a whole lot longer than I’m going to be a softball player so I’d better be a good one. It made me realize I needed to make a difference, I needed to be motivated. The accident taught me to work hard and be proactive. Because of the injury, I always had to stay out in front and always work hard to make sure I was able to keep my arm strong and not have it flare up. I did a lot of prehab so I didn’t have to do a lot of rehab. “Perspective is something that’s hard to always garner when you’re younger,” Smith added. “I was fortunate that I had a life event when I was 19 that taught me a lot. That took me to a level of being able to learn a lot of stuff that most people don’t learn until they’re in their twenties or thirties.” After earning her bachelors of science in health and wellness from Oklahoma State in 1990, Smith continued to excel on the field while playing for the U.S. National softball team as well as in the Japan Pro Softball League and the Women’s Major ASA Fastpitch circuit. With the National team, Smith won Olympic gold medals in Atlanta in 1996 and in Sydney in 2000 as the starting pitcher. She also was part of three gold medal-winning teams in the World Championships, in 1994, 1998 and 2002, and two gold medal-winning squads in the Pan American Games, in 1995 and 1999. “Having the opportunity to represent your country is something that is an honor,” Smith said. “It also requires a lot of dedication. At one point I missed 12 Thanksgivings in a row with my family because I was either abroad or training in preparation of the next event. Everyone sees the two-week period during the Olympics or the world championships but they don’t realize the four years of preparation it requires to have that two-week performance where you’re struggling to make things happen and make ends meet. It’s an interesting life, being an athlete in a niche sport where the athletes aren’t highly paid like some of the track stars or the professional basketball players. I refer to my life even now as a smorgasbord of work that I do to try to make a living. Having the opportunity to make a living in part through the sport of softball has been a blessing but it’s a lot of work to put all of the moving parts together so that they work in unison.” Smith also won three consecutive national championships with the Redding Rebels, from 1993-1995, in Women’s Major ASA Fastpitch. She was recognized as an All-American on 10 occasions and was named the recipient of the Bertha Tickey Award as the most outstanding pitcher four times. Also during this time, from 1993-2008, Smith pitched in the Japan Pro Softball League, where she was an eight-time MVP as well as an eight-time champion as a member of the Toyota Shokki. Part of her responsibilities in Japan included making special marketing and promotional appearances for Toyota Shokki, which Smith says helped her to become even more ingrained in the Japanese culture. “To pick up at age 25 and move halfway around the world was a little frightening but it was by far one of the best decisions I ever made in my life,” Smith said. “It taught me about other cultures and the differences between the Japanese and American cultures. The way we’re raised and how we grow up is completely different than how the Japanese are raised. By having the opportunity to travel as much as I did with the U.S. team, it really taught me a lot about who I am as a person. “I also learned how to speak Japanese during that time. It was good, but it wasn’t great. I was fluent in casual conversation. Just being able to communicate to this day in Japanese with my friends is something I love. Of course, the longer I’m away the harder it is. If you don’t use it, you lose it. So I try to keep as much of my ability to speak the language as I can.” Even though Smith spent much of her time playing the game through the 2000s, she also had numerous other irons in the proverbial fire to help pay the bills. Through Michele Smith Fastpitch, Inc., she has conducted countless coach and player clinics throughout the United States and served as a motivational speaker for companies and local community organizations on such topics as women in leadership, perseverance, sports training and team building. She also has authored and produced several educational videos and books on pitching, hitting and training and assisted a handful of companies in designing performance gear. Since 1996 Smith has worked as a marketing consultant with Musco Sports Lighting by helping build special projects in communities around the world. That relationship has enabled her to reach young women in cultures that have not always welcomed equal opportunity. “I was blessed because after I retired from playing ball, I was working with Musco, and going to the Middle East was a big part of their vision because they were starting to do more work over there,” Smith said. “I was able to meet young women from other countries and motivate them. I stressed that women have the ability to lead and inspire and make a difference. In some cultures, that’s not as accepted. Musco Lighting had a lot of vision in wanting to do that. It was great to see in their eyes another female accomplish things, including many of the things that we take for granted here in the States.” Another major accomplishment Smith achieved began in 1998 when she became the lead color analyst for ESPN’s WCSW coverage, a role she continues to this day. Although she now works exclusively with ESPN, she also served as an analyst for several Triple Crown and other youth events on the CBS Sports Network, was an analyst for NBC during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, and in 2012 became the first female analyst to ever call a Major League Baseball game when she worked for TBS during a contest between the Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers. “It’s great to see the respect that baseball is giving softball now,” Smith said. “Jessica Mendoza doing baseball on ESPN is a huge bonus for our sport and to women in general. Women in all fields need to progress and move forward and have opportunities. When we accomplish these things as women, it inspires and helps other women. That’s why I believe it is so important for women to support other women. Instead of competing with other women and trying to knock each other down, we should celebrate their successes and not be jealous or catty. Women really need to learn to support women and once we do that as a gender, we’re going to be more and more successful.” Her contributions have not gone unnoticed. Smith has been inducted into several halls of fame, including the ASA Softball Hall of Fame in 2006, the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame in 2010, and the Oklahoma State University Alumni Hall of Fame in 2011. She also was honored with the Bill Teegins Excellence in Sportscasting Award and the Clearwater Champion for Youth Award in 2014. In the midst of maintaining a schedule that would make most workaholics look like they are on a permanent vacation, Smith has become more involved in real estate in Florida and serves on several boards, among them Batters Up USA, which supplies equipment to communities wanting to establish recreational baseball and softball youth programs, and Athletes For Hearts, a nonprofit organization that provides financial assistance for families of children with heart disease. “I try to keep learning and moving forward,” Smith said. “I’m hosting my charity events, which have been a big part of my life the last couple of years. I’ve sat on various boards, such as Clearwater For Youth, Softball For Hearts, a lot of different things.” Even though Smith continues to broaden her horizons by working on a variety of projects and providing assistance in numerous ways, she expects softball to remain one of the focal points of her life. After all, the sport is the primary method she is able to reach young women and help them by distributing a message that might allow them to make the right decisions at critical points in their life and wind up having a similar impact on generations to come. “Softball is so much bigger than it was when I was growing up and the opportunities nowadays are amazing,” Smith said. “I was blessed to be a part of softball when the sport was starting to grow and later explode. Baseball and softball always fascinated me and I felt very fortunate to be involved in the diamond sports. To me it was part of that good old American apple pie and summer feeling. I don’t know if young people experience that as much today because it’s so easy to get distracted. “The thing that softball has for young ladies is, we don’t have all of the expectations of multi-million dollar contracts, so they are able to take the sport for what it is, which is the potential to play in college and learn some great life lessons. Softball offers a great social outlet and really teaches the players how to work together. To me that’s a critical part of a young lady’s maturation. We need women to support women better. And I feel that team sports can help motivate young ladies to support one another while teaching them life lessons that are so important.” Right top: In a new venture that is part business, part caring for their own community, Smith and Laurie Davidson renovated Sunset Cottages on Treasure Island, Florida, (facebook.com/TheSunsetInn/) in stunning, old-style but updated true west coast Florida fashion; bottom: Smith caught in a pause, gazing out over a clinic field of young fastpitch players during a break in the action, the selfappointed, caring and careful custodian of the sport she loves and those who play it.
Published by Baseball Magazine. View All Articles.