Josh Smith

Josh Smith attended one of LSU coach Paul Mainieri's first baseball camps in 2007.

Comparing athletes is a fan’s game. Coaches seldom allow themselves to play it.

What coaches will sometimes admit, however, is when they come across players who separate themselves from the pack. Those players earn the label “special.”

LSU shortstop Josh Smith is one of those.

Smith doesn’t just like baseball, or love baseball, or play it really well. He lives for baseball. It doesn’t simply bring him happiness. It gives him profound joy, expressed in an on-field demeanor capable of lifting the play of everyone around him.

His fielding was sublime at an early age. He developed as a power hitter with a knack for hitting in the clutch. There was no place he’d rather be than on a baseball field, whether practicing or playing.

Such passion set him up for the hardest of falls a year ago.

Smith was in class when he received a text from LSU baseball trainer Cory Couture: His season was on hold for 4 to 6 weeks, and maybe over completely. He walked to the Quadrangle to call his father, Scott.

His voice cracked. There were long pauses. Smith, all poise and composure on the baseball field, melted into tears as students walked past him in all directions.

“He was as down as I’d ever heard him,” Scott Smith said. "I’d never heard him cry."

Then a sophomore, Smith was finally going to play shortstop at LSU after a season at third base. But three games in, he couldn’t. A stress reaction to a lumbar vertebra sent shooting pains through his lower back.

He would return in late April and homer in his first game back, but was pulled after striking out twice two games later.

After spending the remainder of the season in rehabilitation, Smith is back to playing the game he cherishes, and loving it even more. When LSU opens its season against UL-Monroe at 7 p.m. Friday, Smith will run to his position with a deeper appreciation for the game than he ever imagined.

“It taught me to grow up a little bit,” Smith said of being sidelined for a year, a reflective tone in his voice. “I could have handled last year a lot better. I pouted at times and got down on myself. Sitting out taught me how much I really did love baseball.

“It was tough for me to even watch games knowing I wasn’t going to be able to play. I took baseball for granted a little bit. It’s awesome to get back. I’m working pretty hard and I’m really excited.”

Smith’s return is spreading excitement throughout the program and fan base for 2019. Two years ago, he helped an LSU team whose drive fell just short in the College World Series finals. His absence last year was part of the reason the Tigers didn’t return to Omaha.

With Smith returning alongside injured starter Eric Walker, three drafted upperclassmen who turned down Major League Baseball and a No. 1-ranked recruiting class, LSU is No. 1 in most preseason rankings and a favorite to claim its seventh national championship.

While it’s not a straight comparison, coach Paul Mainieri said Smith is playing shortstop like Astros star and former All-American Alex Bregman, and that he’s looking like a much-improved version of himself.

“This year, he’s got a different personality about him,” Mainieri said. “I think having it taken away from him has made him appreciate it more. I see a different level of dedication, work ethic and leadership. There’s never been any question about his skill and talent. It makes me confident in our team just seeing him running around out there.”

Growing up with baseball

Josh Smith was born Aug. 7, 1997, exactly two months after LSU won its fourth NCAA title in Omaha. He remembers going to games at old Alex Box Stadium, although not all that often since he was so busy growing up with baseball.

But he loved LSU, as his purple-and-gold-adorned bedroom would suggest. He has a photo of himself as a 10-year-old with at Mainieri at the newly hired coach’s first LSU baseball camp.

By that time, Smith was well on his way. His mother, Jenny, said he was walking at 9 months old and riding a bike without training wheels at 3.

“He knew every trick there was,” Jenny, said.

At 3, he also stood out on the field. He was allowed to play in a Central-area church T-ball league because his dad, Scott, coached. While other kids were picking clovers, Smith was taking leads, sliding and catching the ball — and not just soft tosses. Even early on, he caught grounders that took tricky hops.

“When we got home from T-ball, he didn’t want to practice hitting off the tee,” Scott said. “He wanted me to pitch to him. It was never me asking him but him asking me.”

Scott Smith said from ages 6 to 8, Josh was “making plays high school kids make.” By the time he was 11, Scott turned over his son to Tanna and Trey McClure, who coached the Louisiana Tigers travel ball team for Marucci Baseball.

Three years earlier, Tanna McClure was umpiring and remembered a “cute little 8-year-old, brown-haired kid making diving plays everywhere.”

The same kid was now 11 and trying out for a talented 12-year old team. Tanna McClure convinced his father, Leo, to keep Smith.

“You could see how special he was with the glove,” Tanna McClure said. “I told my dad he may have best hands in the program, including the 14-year-olds.

“He had an ability to slow the game down. The moments were never too big. I always thought he could roll out of bed and catch a ground ball. He grew as a hitter later on, but he was always a great fielder.”

Because of that, Smith often successfully played up into an older age bracket. He played second base and batted last that first season and loved every minute. Later, there were seasons in which he didn’t start but began to develop and understanding of the importance of non-playing roles.

He also learned the game’s nuances. In a tense moment during a big 14-year-old tournament in Orlando, Florida, he decoyed a base runner into holding up on a pop fly into shallow center field. That allowed the center fielder to grab the ball on one bounce and force the runner at second, short-circuiting a potential game-tying rally.

“I was always willing to accept what I had to do,” Smith recalled. “I wasn’t going to be the guy who hit the home runs. I played my role and that helped teach me to be a good teammate. They taught me never to get down on myself. Any competitor would want to play. I’d just root on my guys.”

Smith took that attitude with him when he moved out of age group play and into high school at Catholic High, where his love for football kept him a two-sport athlete for a year. As a freshman, he was a backup running back to star tailback Derrius Guice in 2012 and just ahead of LSU current tailback Clyde Edwards-Helaire.

But football interfered with his fall baseball tournament travel, and he became a baseball-only athlete. In his first season, he started at third base half the season and the rest at shortstop, leading the Bears to the Class 5A state title in 2013.

Smith became more and more absorbed in making himself better. He had already learned he didn’t have to wait to be told to work out on the side.

Catholic coach Brad Bass once arrived at the field to find Smith alone with a bucket of baseballs at shortstop and a net at first base. He was pretending to catch ground balls and practicing his throws to first.

“The second you see him pick up a bat and ball, you know he’s something special,” Bass said. “That year we won state he was a freshman at shortstop and our leadoff hitter. He drove the bus for that team. He was an emotional leader, which is very rare but fun to watch. He loves to play baseball. He’s the first one there, last one to leave.”

He was selected in the 38th round by the Detroit Tigers, but he would've gone much higher had he not made it clear his career was going through LSU.

He wanted to play at Alex Box.

Stress reaction

A few days before LSU’s 2018 season opener, Smith began to feel discomfort in his lower back. Chalking it up to a pulled muscle, he moved forward into the first series and hit a dramatic three-run home in the first game as LSU pulled out a victory in the season opener.

But the pain grew worse. Eventually, medical professionals saw an MRI that revealed one of his lumbar vertebrae was having a stress reaction. It’s an injury common to athletes in baseball, football and golf. Twisting and turning of the lower spine results in swelling inside the bone, Couture said. Without rest, ultimately the bone breaks down completely.

For the first four weeks, Smith was allowed to do nothing so the bone would heal. There was a chance, with two more weeks of muscle strengthening, that he could resume play. But his back locked up on him after three games, and his season was done.

“You’re never sure how much time it’s going to take before you can be confident,” Couture said. “You almost have to take it day by day. It’s hard to deal with mentally. It’s easy to shut down and not trust the doctor, me or the coaches. He was patient and confident.

“He had ups and downs. There were some bad days where he was extremely disappointed. But he showed up every day and did everything asked of him. He was professional about the whole thing.”

Once the pain subsided, Smith attacked his five-week back program and completed it on schedule. The five-level program, five times per week, entailed increasingly harder workouts to strengthen lower back muscles, his core and abdominals.

Smith said he will continue a three-times-a-week program moving forward to maintain strength.

The exercises are grueling.

One of them, called "dead bug," requires him to lay on his back and rotate all four limbs in the air for 15 minutes consecutively.

He had myriad sit-ups, some partial and some weighted. He had to do three sets of 30 sit-ups holding a weight over his head. He worked with a medicine ball from different positions.

By late summer and early fall, Smith started to swing a bat — but he remained cautious.

“Mentally was the hardest part,” he said. “Every swing I took, I was waiting for it to hurt. When I started playing again is when I felt like my old self.”

Although Smith said he handled it all poorly, having to watch the team play, he didn’t show that side to anyone. The injury forced freshman Hal Hughes into the starting shortstop job for 63 games.

“He was a huge help to me all year,” Hughes said. “Instead of being upset about the injury he used his energy to help me make it a smooth transition. I never saw him sulk about his injury or rehab.”

Labor of love

Mainieri has Smith pegged for either the leadoff spot or No. 3 in the batting order. Mainieri calls him the team’s best clutch hitter as well as perhaps the best defensive shortstop in the Southeastern Conference.

“He’s got the potential to be a first-round pick in June, certainly the first couple of rounds,” Mainieri said.

The injury and time missed will become a distant memory to Smith once the season starts and barring any unforeseen future problems. It will simply become another workout that made him better, another obstacle he overcame to reconnect him with his vocation.

His parents aren’t surprised. There was never anything he wanted to do more than play baseball, but never in an unhealthy way. Smith hunts and fishes with his dad but would almost always rather be at the ballpark.

“Through thousands of practices, I never one time heard him complain about going to practice,” Scott Smith said. “That’s one thing that always amazed me. I’m not exaggerating. I was around him every day. Bad mood, good mood, sick or not — he never complained.”

He always did more than just show up, even as a freshman at LSU. Smith’s return is not only going to beef up the offense and defense but will put some electricity back into the team chemistry.

“He brings energy, comes out every day full of energy and excitement,” outfielder Zach Watson said. “It was missing last year. You can already tell the impact he’s had.

“I don’t know how he does it sometimes. If you are down, he’s going to push you up to make sure we win. If it’s a slow day and everyone is miserable or tired, he’s over there pumping us up.”

Smith is ready to resume his career, just where it left off.

“I’m not quiet; I’m vocal,” he said. “As a freshman, we had our leaders — but as a freshman, I was a leader in some ways, not the leader of the team. I could sit back and not take control. It was fun. Now I’m a junior and I need to be a leader for the team. It’s a different role but still pretty cool.”