After a bit of a roller coaster ride with the Stanford University baseball team over the past three years, La Cañada High graduate Eric Smith is set to begin his climb up the Los Angeles Dodgers minor league farm system.
"I am going to sign and start my professional career," said Smith, who was drafted by the Dodgers in the 18th round at No. 566 overall June 6 in the Major League Baseball First Year Player Draft. "It's kind of funny, my family have gone to Dodger games my entire life, it's kind of weird to be drafted by the team I've grown up with — the hometown team. I knew it was a possibility … but the draft is so unpredictable you don't know what's going to happen or where it's going to take you."
Smith hasn't officially signed with the Dodgers yet, as Stanford's season ended Sunday, but he hopes to do so this weekend or early next week. He expects to be assigned to the Ogden Raptors in Utah or Arizona League Dodgers, minor league rookie affiliates with the Dodgers.
"I don't know where I will be yet," Smith said. "I just look forward to signing and to start playing right away."
Former La Cañada High Coach Dennis Ballard wasn't surprised when Smith, whom he coached for three years, was drafted.
"There was no question in my mind [he would be drafted]," said Ballard, who stepped down at the end of this season after 10 years with the Spartans. "I would say he was a phenom. He just did everything right in baseball and nothing got in his way. He was dissatisfied with average, he was never going to be average."
Smith, a 2009 La Cañada High graduate, will still return to the place that paved his way to professional career — Stanford University — in the fall and winter to complete his senior year and earn his political science degree.
On the ball field, it was this season at Stanford that Smith began catching — the position he was drafted at — as the Cardinals coach moved him from the middle infield where he's played most of his career.
"I was taken back a little bit [when coach told me] because catching is unlike any other position," Smith said. "It's the most different position you can take on, it's not like you're moving to another side of the field."
Smith handled himself well in his first year behind the plate, as he posted a .984 fielding percentage with six errors in 386 chances and caught nine of 18 would-be base stealers, but it was his bat that led to him being drafted.
"I think my bat has really played to my advantage, left-handed hitting catchers aren't that common," said Smith, who became the Cardinals starting catcher and batted .321 (60 for 187) with 32 runs batted in, 35 runs, 11 doubles and two homers this season. "[Catching] presented me with a great opportunity to play this year and play with such a great team."
Straight out of high school, Smith had an immediate impact at Stanford, as he hit .286 with 12 RBI, 10 runs, three doubles and two triples in 36 games as a freshman. He had a bit of a sophomore slump, though, as he only appeared in 14 games and batted .250 with two RBI and two doubles after he suffered an injury and was beat out for a starting position in the infield.
Smith said he wasn't in line for much playing time as a junior with the entire infield returning until his coach told him they wanted him to play catcher next season with both Stanford backstops graduating.
"It opened up great opportunities for me," Smith said. "Having a breakout year like I did this year, especially catching, is what got me drafted. It's a year I am never going to forget."
Stanford's season came to an end Sunday when it was swept by No. 3 Florida State in a best-of-three series in the NCAA Super Regionals. Smith was zero for five with a run scored in both games combined, as the Cardinals lost 17-1 Friday and 18-7 Sunday.
"Our goal all four years was to get to the [College] World Series in Omaha but unfortunately we fell a little short for the second year in a row, but I don't think you can be upset with getting to the Super Regionals," Smith said. "We didn't do a good job of executing offensively, defensively or pitching and Florida State took advantage of every opportunity they got."
The Cardinals finished the season with a 41-18, 18-12 in Pac-12Conference record for a fourth-place finish in a conference stacked with teams like UCLA, Arizona, Oregon, Oregon State and Arizona State.
"We pride ourselves on playing one of the most difficult schedules," said Smith, who was an All-Pac 12 honorable mention and All-Stanford Regional Tournament player this season. "Then you go through Pac-12 and it's one of, if not the best, conferences in the country. It's an experience you can't get anywhere else, especially at the college level."
Ballard credits Smith's success at the high school and collegiate level to his hard work.
"He was probably the most respected hitter in league for years," Ballard said of Smith, who hit .510 (54 for 186) with 59 RBI, 76 runs, 22 doubles, 24 stolen bases and six homers in three years at La Cañada. "It was a foregone conclusion when it came time for the all-league meetings that he was a first-teamer."
Ballard also believes Smith will have no problem making an impression offensively in the minors.
"I think he could go in the minor leagues and hit .300-plus right now," Ballard said. "He has great timing and great strength. He is kind of a superman as far as I am concerned."
For now, Smith is concerned on continuing to improve in hopes of one day cracking a Major League roster.
"There's a ton I still have to work on defensively because I haven't been doing it long. It will truly be on the job training like it was this year but I hope to keep improving and make my way up the organization."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times