Column: Angels’ Joe Smith is not nearly as common as his name
If anybody could get lost in the celebrity of being a major league baseball player, it is Angels pitcher Joe Smith.
His name is the ultimate in common. If you were looking for personal brand identification in this age of look-at-me-ism, you could do no worse than being named Joe Smith.
He doesn’t even own the first call on the Joe Smith brand in pro sports. That probably goes to the 16-year NBA veteran, who ended his career in 2011 with the Lakers.
In the NBA, there have been 61 players named Smith. But the “Joe” adds even less distinction.
Nor is his job high profile enough to transcend his Smith-ism. He is a setup guy, a late-inning relief pitcher, whose job is to minimize damage and get the ball in the hands of closer Huston Street as quickly as possible. Smith’s best personal brand is his side-arm delivery.
Still, in big league pitching, the headlines go to the starter and the closer. The guys in between are pretty much just that — guys in between. They often play pumped-up music for the guys coming out of the bullpen to finish things. The others come in to an organ or a ballad.
Even being named Tom Jones might have worked better for Smith. Or maybe not. People might have expected him to sing and thrust his hips a lot.
As it turns out, this Joe Smith has the perfect personality and life approach to be a famously under-heralded Joe Smith. Others seek Web hits and want their picture and life incidents to go viral. Smith seeks only a World Series victory for the Angels.
To Angels fans, he is no ordinary Joe.
Last year, the first of his three-year contract with the Angels worth $5.25 million a year, he had a season to justify the numbers. He had a 7-2 win-loss record, 15 saves with a 1.81 earned-run average, pitched in 76 games and gave up just 15 earned runs in 74 2/3 innings.
More appealing than that is his attitude and personality.
The 15 saves on his stat sheet came at a time last season when Ernesto Frieri struggled and Smith was promoted to be the final-inning man. Then came the trade for Street.
It was a perfect time to sulk and whine, as would so many of the current enabled types in pro sports. Smith did neither.
“It was awesome,” Street said. “I didn’t know him. We had never met. Obviously, the organization is going to decide who becomes the closer. But he was the first guy to come up to me, welcome me.
“And the thing was, he wasn’t just closing games. He was dominating.”
Smith’s explanation for his behavior said it all.
“I didn’t sign here to be the closer,” he said Sunday. “I signed here to win.”
At least two more of his teammates are happy he did.
Ace starter Jered Weaver said, “For starters, he’s just a great guy. Good pitcher. Gets a lot of ground balls. Torii Hunter, when he was with us, used to say Smith was one of the toughest guys to hit.”
Catcher Chris Iannetta said, “He’s way easier to catch than he is to hit.”
Iannetta called Smith’s side-arm slider “a boomerang.”
When veteran reliever Jason Grilli signed with the Angels last season, Welcome Wagon Smith was ready.
“We were texting or something when he was on his way,” Smith said. “He said he kept Five Hour Energy drink around to keep him going, so when he got here, I had a box of it in the bullpen.”
The caregiver in Smith has surfaced with reason, even necessity. Not widely known is that his mother was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease in 2012. The Mayo Clinic website defines it as an “inherited disease that causes the progressive breakdown of nerve cells in the brain.”
Smith called it “a combination of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and everything bad,” and labeled it “The Devil’s Disease.”
There is no cure.
Lee Smith is 56 and lives in Ohio, where Joe was born and raised. Her son said she is doing fine at the moment. Her son also knows that, as an inherited disease, he could have Huntington’s too.
“My sister [Megan] has three kids and she hasn’t been tested,” Smith said. “I got married recently, and I’ll get tested before we have kids. It’s 50-50 for both my sister and me.”
Smith and wife, Allie LaForce, a former Miss Teen USA and a network TV sideline reporter, have formed a foundation to raise funds to battle Huntington’s disease. He said he didn’t do as well as he wanted last year, raising only $400,000 because “wedding planning eats up a lot of time and energy.”
The foundation has a website, HelpcureHD.com.
Smith’s side-arm pitches should continue to bedazzle opposing hitters. The Angels hope that provides enough late-inning security to make the advance to the World Series a reality this year.
For now, foundation and family rank above all else for Joe Smith. Not far behind is making teammates feel valued and welcomed.
All of which means that Joe Smith, in direct opposition to his name, is an uncommon man.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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