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Angels trainer lives baseball all year

“You caught me on an interesting day,” Rick Smith says on the phone. “I’m making callbacks today.”

For most of us, that doesn’t sound all that exciting. Mine usually aren’t.

But Smith is a baseball man -- “athletic trainer” is the term he prefers -- and his list Monday included Angels outfielder Gary Matthews and catcher Mike Napoli. Both had surgery a few weeks ago, and it’s part of Smith’s job as one of the team’s trainers to see how they’re doing.

Once upon a time, baseball players could disappear in the off-season and not be seen or heard from until spring training. Teams have too much invested nowadays to be caught off-guard.

“I don’t think anybody wants to be surprised,” Smith says, “by having a player show up on the 15th of February and say, ‘Oh by the way, I fell off a ladder putting up Christmas lights the first week of December and kind of tweaked my shoulder, but I didn’t want to say anything about it.’ ”

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Not that Smith minds making the calls. At 55, he’s a baseball lifer and a baseball lover. We’d chatted on the phone a couple years ago on an unrelated subject, and I told him I’d look him up some off-season to see how he whiles away his time.

First things first: How long did it take to get over the Angels’ playoff loss to the Red Sox? “Probably a couple weeks,” he says. “I really thought we were going to do better.”

Smith is not one to let games gnaw at him, a lesson he learned long ago. “There’s got to be a balance, because if not, you’ll end up in a straitjacket,” he says. “Some of us do. You end up in a rubber room. I’ve taken in about 5,000 baseball games, so if you wear every one of them on your sleeve, you’re going to be locked up.”

Easier said than done, perhaps, when you get hired by an organization in 1976 and it’s still the only employer you’ve ever had. “I had just graduated from Texas-El Paso,” Smith says, “and thought I was footloose and fancy-free and would take a chance on this professional baseball athletic trainer job and see where it leads.”

It led him to the double-A team in El Paso. “The entire locker room and shower room were about the size of a bedroom, and the athletic training room was about the size of a pool table,” he recalls. “It didn’t have any windows, a fan, anything. It was pretty old school.”

He joined the big club in 1978 and is one of the team’s four athletic trainers.

Come on, I say, name-drop. “A guy who’s one of my favorites right now is Vladdy Guerrero,” Smith says. “He truly loves the game and wants to play every day and every night. He wants to play every game. . . . He’s kept us pretty busy with his knees, but we kind of drag him into the athletic training room, because he’s a warrior.”

Smith doesn’t aw-shucks his enjoyment of being close to a game many of us would love to be part of. Yes, it’s a season that starts in February and doesn’t end until sometime in October, and they don’t give you days off just because you want to kick back at home or in the hotel. Smith says he’s missed only four games in 33 years.

“I still love the game,” he says. “I love watching the games; I love the athletes. It’s the only thing I’ve done professionally. This is a number for you: 33 years in pro baseball, four years as an athletic trainer in college, four years as an athletic trainer in high school. So for 41 of my 55 years, I have been doing some type of athletic training. That leaves 14 years of playing around, I suppose.”

With baseball in his blood, I wonder when he starts getting the itch to get back to it. “I try to have all my honey-dos done by Thanksgiving,” Smith says, “because it’s like the next thing you know, it’s Christmas and New Year’s and, holy smokes, it’s time to get going.”

But before Arizona beckons, Smith, his wife, Janell, and son Karcher will go on safari in Africa later this month. “The trip of a lifetime,” Smith says.

Funny, I thought that’s what the Angels’ 2002 World Series adventure was. That’s right up there, Smith says, and as he talks about it, it’s clear what being connected to a major-league club means to him and why he can’t wait to crank it up again.

He pictures a day 50 years from now and grandkids reading about previous World Series winners. The list will include the ’02 Angels and, Smith says, “They’ll say, ‘My grandfather was athletic trainer on that team.’ My son might still have my World Series ring. He might have a photo. I’m in the book. I’m part of that team and nothing can ever take that away from me, ever. It’s a wonderful memory.”

Let us not forget, however, that it’s not 2009 yet. We’re still in the ’08 off-season. Baseball can wait. These days, Smith has a role other than making sure world-class athletes are good to go.

With that in mind, I ask if he’s made himself useful around the family’s Santa Ana house.

“I finished painting the laundry room,” he says. “It looks really nice. But I don’t do wallpapering.”

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dana.parsons@latimes.com


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