Curt Smith points to the sky as he crosses home plate. Courtesy photo

Curt Smith’s love for his team and its city could be seen in his final game with the Lincoln Saltdogs in 2021. His emotions leaving the field for the last time were genuine. Tears filled his eyes as he walked away from the diamond at Haymarket Park for the last time. The fans sent him out with a standing ovation. It was the sendoff of a player who had given his all for the city he loves.

After eight seasons, Smith is hanging up the cap, putting the bat back into the rack and an end to a career that will live in more than the Saltdogs record books.

“It was a long and rewarding journey to get to where I am today,” Smith said. “Being able to walk away with this much love for the game and for my city makes me know I did things the right way.”

Smith, one of the most recognizable players to put on the Saltdogs uniform, bounced around many different leagues before coming to Lincoln. His experience not only had an impact on the Saltdogs record books but on the often unstable and quickly rotating rosters of independent baseball, a level with eight leagues and 72 teams across the United States and Canada. Returning for his eighth season in 2021, the 34-year-old became the longest tenured player since the team’s start in 2001. Once the powerful hitter found his home in Lincoln, he started stamping his name at the top of almost every category in the record books.

* * *

Smith’s home country of Curaçao, located off the northern shores of Venezuela, is populated by about 157,000 residents — half the population of Lincoln. The small Dutch-Caribbean island unites under a common passion: Baseball.

“If you’re in Curaçao right now and not playing baseball, I don’t know what you would be doing,” Smith said with a laugh. “Baseball means everything to the country.”

Growing up, Smith’s family was full of baseball fans. His uncles played baseball and he remembered them taking him to games and sparking his love for the game.

“Some of my first memories were of my uncles taking me to the ballfields,” Smith said.

The first time Smith came to the United States was in 2002 for Team Latin America at the Senior League World Series in Bangor, Maine. The tournament ended with Smith’s Curaçao team defeating Boynton Beach, Fla. in the championship game. This game was more than a championship win for Smith. It was a major stepping stone in his career. 

“It was a great opportunity for me because the University of Maine saw me play and it led to them offering me a full scholarship in 2004,” Smith said.

Smith accepted and packed up his bags to move to the United States. He said it was scary for him to be off on his own as a foreign student, but the university took him in and cared for him.

“The University of Maine will always have a special place in my heart,” Smith said. “They gave me a great opportunity to come to the United States and play baseball, and they made sure I felt welcomed.”

As a member of the Black Bear baseball team, he led the team to two America East championships and two NCAA Regional appearances in 2005 and 2006. Smith was also named team captain, America East Player of the Year and named to the NCAA All-Regional team in 2008. Smith finished his senior year batting .403 with 40 RBIs and 11 home runs.

Find his name in the University of Maine’s record books finishing second in all-time hits (300), second in triples (19), third in RBIs (178), fourth in doubles (60) and fourth in most single-season hits (87). 

Smith’s powerful hitting led him to the MLB draft where the St. Louis Cardinals selected him in 2008.

“It was a great honor to be selected by the Cardinals in the draft. A dream come true,” Smith said.

His time in the MLB was sporadic, he said, playing for different Double-A and Single-A teams affiliated with the St. Louis Cardinals. However, Smith never let that discourage him. 

“I wasn’t bothered by bouncing around to different teams. I knew each one was a new opportunity for me to continue playing baseball and live out my dream,” Smith said.

His bat stayed hot while in the Minor League, hitting a career batting average of .301 in 260 minor league games before the St. Louis Cardinals released him in 2011. He was heartbroken but said it was a defining moment in his career. 

Little did he know the amount of success to follow, for his Saltdogs career was about to begin.

When Smith first came to the Saltdogs in 2011, he did not know entirely what to expect. He had never played for an independent league — a league without ties to the MLB but still produces talented players. Despite it being a new experience, Smith said it didn’t take long for him to feel at home in Lincoln.

“The people, coaches and players were all so welcoming and so nice to me,” he said. “They made it very easy for me to settle in with the Saltdogs organization.”

Smith played the rest of the 2011 season as a Saltdog before fielding offers from minor league teams like the Miami Marlins, Minnesota Twins and the St. Louis Cardinals, and playing with each for a season. After spending those three seasons bouncing around the minor league again, Smith decided to come back to Lincoln in 2014 and put on the Saltdogs uniform again.

This time was different. It was permanent.

Smith competed in Lincoln for the next seven seasons for a total of eight seasons as a Saltdog. He originally planned on retiring after the 2020 season, until it was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, and he knew he had to come back for one more season in 2021.

“It was always really easy to come back to this organization,” Smith said. 

Not only does Smith have an enormous love for the game, but he has a love for the organization, his teammates and the fans who have all become part of his life. 

“It was always easy to show up for games because the fans felt like my best friends,” Smith said. “I got to know a lot of them personally and they were all very nice and made the organization feel like a family.”

Coming into the 2021 season, Smith ranked:

  • first in walks (194)
  • second in games started (576)
  • second in RBIs (390)
  • second in total bases (1,117)
  • second in hits (701)
  • third in doubles (130)
  • third in runs scored (340)

“It is a really cool honor to see your name at the top of so many records,” he said. “It shows all of your hard work paying off and lets me know that I was doing things right.”

While happy with accomplishments, Smith said he hopes his records are something other players strive to beat. 

“I hope they don’t stay,” Smith said. “I would love to be able to see other players come in and take over those columns in the record book.”

His legacy will not soon be forgotten by Saltdogs fans, and he said he will always remember his time as a Saltdog. 

“I have so much to love about Lincoln. I was able to meet my wife, start a family and play the game that I love for eight years because this city was so welcoming,” Smith said. “It is a very special place to me.”

* * *

Roster stability is one of the hardest things to find in independent baseball. In the American Association, where the Saltdogs compete, rosters can consist of 23 players, with a maximum of five veterans and a minimum of five rookie players. This rule keeps the rosters competitive and constantly changing. 

With an unstable roster, the experience of veterans becomes important for accommodating newer players. And having an eight-year veteran like Curt Smith was a rare advantage of the Saltdogs, said the first-year Saltdogs Manager, Brett Jodie.

“Having a guy with Curt’s experience was very helpful to me and to our team,” Jodie said. 

As a pitcher for the University of South Carolina, Jodie brings experience from different levels of baseball, getting drafted to the MLB by the Yankees in the sixth round in 1998. He also served as a manager for the Somerset Patriots (an independent team in the Atlantic League) for seven years. Coming to the Saltdogs, Jodie said he relied on Smith’s experience to ease his transition.

“He [Smith] made everybody feel welcomed. Myself included,” Jodie said. “His leadership qualities were something we could build our team around, and it allowed us to play baseball at a high level.”

Trying to transition players into a new system can be difficult, but with a leader like Smith, who Jodie calls “The Mayor,” a lot of tasks could be delegated to the veteran. Smith’s caring personality made him the perfect person to welcome new players, Jodie said. Smith built relationships with his teammates by hosting get-togethers at his house and putting on team outings. He took in new players and welcomed them into the organization with open arms. 

“Curt treats this team like a family. He cares about each individual on the team and wants the best outcome for everybody,” Jodie said. 

The players respected Smith as a captain, too, Jodie said, in and out of the dugout. Not only for his positive spirit and ability to bring the team together but also because of his ability to lead on the field.

“He was a competitor, but he was also a guy that you knew loved the sport,” Jodie said. 

There were times where Smith would be frustrated with a bad call, Jodie said, but he was always able to let those emotions go and focus on his role as a leader. 

“His ability to move on from a frustrating situation was a quality he possessed that came with his maturity as a player,” Jodie said. “Smith approached every game with a happy-go-lucky attitude and a positive outlook.”

To the Saltdogs, Smith was more than just a record-breaking player. His role went beyond what he could do in the batter’s box.

“When he plays, you can see how much he cares for his team and for his city. He gives his all for them,” Jodie said.

Jodie said he noticed Smith’s appreciation for the fans and him wanting to give back — often staying after games to sign autographs or take pictures. The fans always returned the love for Smith, Jodie said.

“No matter what the score of the game was, the fans would always get loud for Curt,” Jodie said. “His at-bats would sometimes lead to MVP chants.”

Smith played his final game as a Saltdog on Sept. 6, 2021. His last at-bat was a pop-out to the second baseman — a plate appearance Smith said he would always want back. But he walked away from the game with no regrets.

“The fans and this city have always treated me with so much love and respect,” Smith said. “I always wanted to go out there and give my all for them.”