Being able to tell your kids and grandkids that you hold several team records for a professional baseball team is an impressive feat, even for an independent baseball team. Longtime infielder Curt Smith will be able to do just that.
The Curacao native and recently turned 35 year-old Smith, just finished his last of eight seasons playing for the Lincoln Saltdogs, a team he’s been with every year since 2015. He finishes his career leading the Saltdogs in games played, doubles, home runs, and walks.
After graduating from the University of Maine and hitting a cool .403 in his senior year, Smith was professionally drafted in 2008 by the St. Louis Cardinals. It took 39 rounds and 1,174 men before him, but being number 1,175 provided just as much excitement and emotion as being number one.
“When I heard my name I felt a sense of accomplishment,” Smith said. “I didn’t care what round it was or where I went, I was just glad I got the opportunity to play for a professional team.”
Smith played well in the Cardinals minor league system for a few years, bouncing around from high A and AA ball and hitting a collective .301 in the minors across three seasons.
But in April of 2011, just before the season began, he was called into the General Manager’s office to learn the St. Louis Cardinals had released him. Smith was now a free agent.
“I was devastated. In 2011 on the last day of spring training I was ready to break in the season with the team, but they told me I was no longer needed,” Smith said. “I couldn’t understand why at the time because I had great numbers and was a good teammate, but I didn’t give up.”
While being cut was the most crushing blow of his career so far, Smith didn’t let that get him down. Within a calendar year, he became part of the Dutch National Baseball Team whose roster included MLB stars Didi Gregorious, Xander Bogaerts, and Jonathon Schoop.
That Netherlands team competed in the 2011 World Baseball Cup and crushed the competition by going 11-1, falling only to Canada by one run in the first round. In the championship game against Cuba, Smith cemented his electric tournament run by getting on base three times and scoring a run. This helped the Dutch narrowly beat Cuba 2-1, and garnered Smith the team MVP award after and leading the tournament in RBIs.
“I’ll never forget it, and it wasn’t the first time I’ve played with those guys, Didi and Schoop,” Smith said. “I grew up with them in the baseball world ever since I was 8 or 9, and we were playing either with each other or against each other. We usually get to catch up back in Curacao in December, and we don’t even talk about baseball, it’s just nice to talk as friends.”
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Smith found the Lincoln Saltdogs in 2011 after he and his agent combed through other potential opportunities around the country. He proved he was still a ballplayer by hitting an easy .335 in 78 games in his inaugural year at Haymarket Park.
He found a few more minor league stints with the Twins and Cardinals over the next few years, plus a winter down in Mexico, but in 2015 he would settle down in Lincoln and begin his legacy.
“After I got released, I started getting all these phone calls from independent baseball, which I wasn’t familiar with, and I started to think my career was over,” Smith said.
Baseball teams always have more players than they do roster spots, so many players are forced to compete with their own teammates for a final spot. But Smith was always a selfless and thankless guy, something former pitching coach Dan Reichert always appreciated.
“If you think of a professional athlete or baseball player, he’s the highest quality player that you could have, and it helps that he speaks six different languages,” Reichert said. “We’ve had players come over that speak very little English, and he would take those young players under his wing and show them how to prepare before the games.”
Reichert also recalls a rather cold and dismal day in Sioux City when he brought his son Lucas along to watch the game, and Smith noticed he wasn’t having a good time.
“Curt asked me, ‘Do you think he’d like a bat?'” Reichert said. “And I knew that would make his day.”
Smith proceeded to grab one of his engraved bats he had broken earlier in the day, and gave it to Lucas, who now had a friend for life.
“His eyes lit up and he held that bat with him for the rest of the night,” Reichert said. “He went to bed with it and slept with that bat. To this day, it’s still in the shed and he’ll bring it out from time to time and take some swings with it.”
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Independent baseball isn’t a long-term home for most players, but Smith made it his home. The independent leagues usually provide a place for young players to keep playing while looking for minor league opportunities, with some older guys mixed in who just want to play for a few more seasons for the fun of it.
The Saltdogs organization, like other independent teams, have seen plenty of players come and go. But Smith spent eight seasons with the team, which is the most in their 20 year history, and General Manager Charlie Meyer has been there since day one to tell the tale.
“He’s been a rock solid individual from day one and probably has one of the greatest smiles of any baseball player we’ve ever had,” Meyer said.
Meyer and chairman Jim Abel got the program off the ground in 1999 and commenced the inaugural season in 2001. Of all the players that came through the organization in the past 20 years, Meyer recalls no one as unique as Smith.
“He’s an anomaly, but I’ve always looked at it as a good thing as it brings values you can’t measure,” Meyer said. “When other players learned Curt Smith played here, they wanted to play here, so he was sort of a recruiting advantage.”
“When you have someone like Curt Smith, it makes your job a little easier to put the puzzle together for the team each year.”
Smith provided consistency and reliability for the Saltdogs over his eight year stint. For a league that goes through plenty of players every year, trying to find a replacement for a career .311 hitter is going to be a tough task.
“He’s one person from our standpoint that we loved, and I’m going to miss that this year because we basically tried to build the club around him because of what he brought to the table.” Meyer said. “That’ll be a big hole we’ll have to fill going into 2022.”
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Smith walked into unknown territory in 2011, and that experience shaped him into the person he was on the field. Smith cemented his spot into Saltdog history with his power in his eight seasons in Lincoln, and he’ll always be remembered.
“At first I was weirded out that I was going to play in an independent league because I didn’t understand what it was, but when I got here I realized that all of the guys were in the same boat,” Smith said. “The way we embraced each other and tried to help each other get back into affiliated ball is an experience I’ll never forget.”