Oct. 29, 2002
It is an old clich in sports that reaching your goals comes only with hard work and dedication. For Ohio State pitcher Nate Smith, the idea is one he has taken as his own and used it to satisfy his greatest aspirations.
Smith is living the dream of a small-town boy doing whatever it takes to make it in the world of baseball. The native of Bryan, Ohio (pop. 8,500) gained local recognition for taking the track from his small hometown to a Big Ten university on a baseball scholarship. He found himself where he is today by picking up a baseball and rarely putting it down.
Smith grew up across the street from the town’s minor league ballpark, which, as Smith’s father Mike Smith said, led him to an intense practice regiment, at a young age. It was the beginning of Smith’s life of constant dedication to the game.
“From age 6 or 7, we were constantly over at the field, just constantly practicing,” Mike Smith said. “I would hit him ground balls or he would take (batting practice) or sometimes I would let him pitch to me, it didn’t matter.”
When Smith began pitching at Bryan High School, his coaches put him on an experimental throwing program, which, over the course of three seasons, built his pitch velocity from 68 miles per hour to 89 when he graduated. The program has since blossomed in various communities around Bryan and has been renamed the “Nate Smith Throwing Program.”
“(He was) one of the hardest workers that I’ve ever been around,” Tom Held, Smith’s high school coach, said. Everybody tries (the throwing program) and quits after two weeks. He did it for three straight years. He is not a kid who came into high school with a great arm or anything like that. He literally worked his behind off to get where he is.”
After a stellar season with the Midland Redskins of the American Amateur Baseball Congress in which he was the Most Valuable Player of the 1998 Connie Mack World Series, the offer from Ohio State was on the table and it was time for him to make the biggest decision of his life. “The day he decided to go to The Ohio State University to play baseball, I was crying because I thought he was biting off too much,” Denise Smith, Smith’s mother, remembered. “He said, ‘you guys always taught me to be the best and to be the best, I have to be with the best. If I don’t go there, I’m letting myself down.'”
All seemed as if it was going to work out for Smith. Prior to the 1999 season, he was voted a Preseason Freshman All-American. Smith, coming off a great season with the Redskins, seemed poised to take his game to the next level.
As a freshman, he appeared in 19 games, starting nine and had started eight games in his sophomore campaign before his determination and work ethic would be put to the test as never before.
Midway into the season, Smith started feeling that something was wrong with his throwing arm, but being the workhorse he was, he tried to pitch through the injury. Finally, in a game against Michigan, the pain became overwhelming and Smith removed himself from the game.
After visiting the team doctor and receiving tests, Smith got the bad news.
“I ended up tearing the labrum in my shoulder,” he said. “It basically keeps the shoulder and socket (together), so basically my shoulder was coming out every time I went to throw. It was horrible, it was the worst thing I’ve ever felt.” A disappointed Smith had surgery on the injured shoulder and was unable to throw a baseball for seven months.
When Smith finally began his rehabilitation and prepared to rejoin the team for his junior season, once again, it was his determination that pushed him over the limit. In trying to return too quickly, Smith developed tendonitis, which made him unable to pitch and prompted his doctors and coaches to grant him a medical redshirt, eliminating him from competition in 2001.
While the news did bring heartbreak to Smith’s baseball aspirations, it would be the same pressure and desire that perpetuated his injury that would also compel Smith to not waste his time off the field.
“I still watched the games and when you take a step back from it, you learn a lot more about the game itself,” Smith said. “I started watching our pitchers throw and the kinds of pitches that they threw at different counts and obviously in the Big Ten, you’re going to face the same hitters each year so I studied their weaknesses.”
Smith not only used his time away from the game to help his career on the field but in the classroom as well. While he enjoyed significant academic success in high school, Smith found himself in the same boat as many freshman and sophomores new to the college experience, slow out of the gate and struggling in the classroom.
“(The injury) put a lot of things in perspective,” he said. “I realized that I am here to get my education and that there are a lot more important things in life besides baseball. My freshman year I was a Preseason All-American and something like that makes you think ‘Maybe I’m pretty good…maybe I should just concentrate on baseball’ and my grades definitely suffered. Once I did get injured, I had that much more time to study. I started applying myself a lot more and managing my time.”
By the time Smith was ready to return for his redshirt junior season of 2002, he not only found himself with a new perspective of the game and a changeup he was never able to throw before the injury, but he also had raised his grade point average to a level that would gain him acceptance to Ohio State’s Max Fisher College of Business.
While Smith would never say he is glad he was forced to endure such an intense injury, his continued willpower and work ethic turned a potentially disastrous situation into an event that changed his life for the better.
“I think (the injury) made me realize how much I respect and love the game,” he said. “I totally took the game for granted before I got hurt. I hate to sit here and say the injury made me realize all these things, but sometimes you can turn something like this into a positive.”
Smith has certainly rebounded well. In his junior season of 2002, he was undefeated until his final start of the season, a 9-6 loss to Notre Dame in the 2002 NCAA Regional. He finished the season 6-1 with a 3.12 earned run average and 59 strikeouts.
Smith’s long quest for greatness in the baseball world continues, as he returns for his final season with the baseball Buckeyes in the spring as one of four team captains. Then, he looks to explore the possibility of the Major League Baseball draft.
Wherever Nate Smith’s life takes him, on the diamond or off, he will continue to combat the obstacles before him with the same relentless work ethic and drive that turned him into the pitcher and person he is today.