Sean Hagan was flustered and out of control.
In his first appearance with the Charlotte Knights on May 29, Hagan, a lefty reliever called up less than 24 hours before the game against the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, had thrown his first three pitches far outside the strike zone.
Realizing the young pitcher was rattled, Charlotte catcher Kevan Smith hustled out to the pitcher’s mound to ease Hagan’s nerves.
“Smitty came out, kind of calmed me down a little bit and just told me to throw the ball,” said Hagan, who ultimately earned the win. “He really helped me out there and after that I just pounded the strike zone.”
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Moments like these are common since Smith arrived in Charlotte at the beginning of the season. He is the steady presence for the team and its pitching staff. Now, nearly seven years removed from being a Division I quarterback, he’s one step away from the major leagues.
From Cranberry Township, Pa., Smith started playing baseball at the age of 5, but he says it wasn’t until he was nearly 11 that he became any good and played on an all-star team.
Smith was in the fourth grade when his brother-in-law signed him up to play football. Not knowing anything about the sport, Smith cried when his brother-in-law forced him to play. Once he picked up football, Smith loved it, but baseball always came first.
“Football was kind of on the backburner,” said Smith, 26, who is 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds. “I just kind of did it because my buddies did it. It was just kind of a thing to do. I thought baseball was going to be the thing I was going to do.”
That was until the University of Pittsburgh offered a football scholarship. Smith realized getting a free education and playing Division I football in his home state was an offer he couldn’t refuse. And if things didn’t work out, he knew he could return to baseball.
After redshirting his freshman season, Smith stepped in and played five games at quarterback for the Panthers in 2007. In his first career start against Grambling State, he passed for 202 yards, breaking Dan Marino’s freshman school record.
But the speed of the game and Smith’s lack of football knowledge eventually caught up with him. He dropped to fourth on the team’s depth chart as a sophomore, and because of his size and strength, the coaching staff planned to have him change positions.
Smith met with coach Dave Wannstedt following his sophomore season in 2008, and Smith asked if he could continue playing football on special teams or as a long snapper and play for the baseball team in the spring.
“He was like, ‘You’ve got to pick one or the other,’” Smith said. “I was like, ‘Well, all right, you made my decision for me.’ So I went and played baseball.”
With three years of baseball eligibility for the Panthers, Smith returned to the sport he loved most as a child and adjusted to playing catcher as well as the bulk he added while playing football.
But Smith needed little time to get used to hitting again, finishing second on the team with a .363 batting average in his first season. En route to being named All-Big East in 2010 and 2011, he hit .373 with 19 home runs and 123 RBIs in his career.
Smith’s performance with the Panthers convinced the Chicago White Sox to select him in the seventh round of the First-Year Player Draft in 2011. And since he’s arrived in the organization, he says he’s only improved, especially defensively.
The responsibility a quarterback has to be the captain on the field is something Smith says is similar to his duties as a catcher. He believes he’s accountable for his teammates, and that’s what’s expected of him.
“The No. 1 job is your pitchers and what you’re doing behind the plate,” said Knights manager Joel Skinner, a catcher for nine years in the majors. “It’s a position that has a lot of responsibility to it, and he’s willing to take on that responsibility.”
Smith was ranked by Baseball America as the No. 1 catching prospect and the No. 15 prospect overall in the White Sox organization before this season. In 41 games, he is batting .252, but the career .292 hitter knows his bat will come around.
Smith realizes how close he is to finally achieving his dream of playing in the major leagues. But that won’t shift his focus from being there for his team.
“Just making the big leagues is a window of opportunity,” Smith said. “It’s just being able to compete and create the most of that opportunity. Whenever that time comes, I’m going to do my best and I’m going to work my hardest.
“Right now I just need to realize there is no more next level in the minors. The next level is the big leagues and what I’ve always wanted to do. I just can’t lose the perspective of what the main goal is.”