(Photo: Kimmy Davis)
It was late June when the Arizona State baseball players got a text message. The text had a two-part message for the team: (1) Tim Esmay was no longer with them and (2) Tracy Smith would be taking over.
The players had a lot of questions, as is natural with any change that is ushered into a more veteran team. One question they did not need answering was “Who is Tracy Smith?”
“A lot of us already knew who he was,” junior infielder Chris Beall said. “He was Coach of the Year and just with all he had done with the Indiana program, it was pretty exciting for all of us to find out that he was our new coach.”
Smith coached for nine years apiece at both Miami (OH), where he played college ball, and Indiana University, where he led his team to the College World Series in 2013 to gain the NCBWA National Coach of the Year title. He also led his teams to five collective NCAA Tournaments throughout his career.
So when the players got the text message in late June, they knew whom they were dealing with, or rather, who would be dealing with them. What they didn’t know was how Smith came to coach their team, and what he had written in his playbooks for how this program was going to change.
“I got a call, came out, met with the administration, met with Ray Anderson, and instantly took it all in,” Smith said. “It was as simple as, okay if you’re a baseball guy where do you want to be. I love Bloomington and I have so many fond memories of being there, but as a baseball person, would I rather be in Bloomington or Tempe? The answer was pretty simple.”
Once put into his new role, Smith immediately noticed a difference in the ASU program.
“I’m gonna be very clear about how taking over the other two programs was vastly different than taking over this program,” Smith said. “This place is in pretty good shape. This program has a lot of pride, it has a lot of tradition and it has some talent.”
So does that mean that starting with a better product will yield faster results? Fans hope so. But, Smith exercises a certain nearsightedness that allows him to only see the path rather than any trophy waiting at the end of it.
“Our goals are to play hard every day,” Smith said. “I’m not a come-in-and-promise type of guy, and I don’t talk about championships and all that stuff because all that stuff’s gonna come if you do all the little stuff right on a daily basis.”
Each coach, especially the successful ones, has a clear mindset or method or knack for how they do things with a program. Smith says that his special knack for coaching comes mainly off the field.
“I always say we do it differently and for me differently is I think we go to great lengths to get to know our kids on and off the field,” Smith said. “They’re not gonna give you their all until they know that you care about them. They’re not just a commodity or a pawn in the overall game of baseball. I always try to look at it through the eyes of a parent and try and treat the kids as if they were my own kids.”
And if getting to know the players off the field means having the team belt out questionable karaoke lines or host a hoedown dance, much to the players initial reluctance, Smith will do it. It’s all about seeing the coaches out of the uniform they wear every day, Smith said.
So far the off-the-field idiosyncrasies have strengthened the team-to-coaching-staff dynamic. Players say the focus on the field has been a lot better. One word that echoed across many mouths in terms of the changes they have seen was “structure.”
“We’re a lot more structured and take care of our business a lot better,” senior Jake Peevyhouse said. “A lot of the younger guys are working on their own a lot more and don’t have to wait to be told to do stuff. I think [the new changes] are bringing extra excitement, extra focus because everyone knows how special it is.”
Smith dedicates his full effort to his job, admitting that he really doesn’t even follow professional baseball anymore.
He does plan on hitting a couple of spring training games, but his motive is to bump into some of his former players and watch them play again. One thing Smith reiterated was the beauty of growth within the sport.
“It’s that random contact years down the road when they finally say ‘Oh I get it, why you were so hard,’ and it’s just neat to see people grow up,” Smith said. “It’s that stuff that I absolutely love.”
Smith keeps a file, dating back to his first year of coaching, stuffed with letters and mementos from previous players thanking him for various tidbits along the way. Some of them are apologies for the way they acted at the time; others are tokens of grateful appreciation that helped them become who they are today. It is this file that Smith calls, “his favorite part of coaching.”
Right now Smith is enjoying the nice weather that Tempe has offered him. After Super Bowl weekend he joked, “Everybody said it doesn’t rain here to which I said everybody is a liar.”
Smith’s best coaching memory comes from his trip to Omaha in 2013.
“It was clinching the Super Regional at Florida State and just that last out and that feeling of we’re going,” Smith said. “That last out is something I’ll never forget.”
But as Smith said, he’s not thinking about a championship for this team quite yet. He came in and pointed his focus toward the little details. Beall said he put the team through a mental and physical “hell week” when he got here. Something, Beall said, the team needed to put things in perspective.
“He came in and didn’t know anyone,” Beall said. “He said, ‘Every job’s open, I haven’t looked at your guys’ stats, I’ve never seen you play.’ Everyday he’s evaluating us so that’s led to the whole team pushing themselves, just getting better, which has been pretty cool to watch.”
For now, Smith is content with the way the team has bought into what his staff is trying to teach; merely wanting will not give a team a shot at it all. It’s the pushing and sweating and changing and doing, and maybe in Smith’s mind, even the dancing that will do it.
“If you put the carriage before the horse you sometimes let that affect your daily motivation and your everyday effort.” Smith said. “I think with that talent and with that trust and with that relationship with the team, all the things that the fans want, all the thing that I want or that the players want, those things will come.”
You can reach the author on Twitter @KristinaV_18 or by email at email@example.com