SMITHS: CURSED, BLESSED Orioles' top pick Mark learns talent takes work


From the days when he dominated Little League in California to his being drafted by the Baltimore Orioles last week, baseball has come easy for Mark Smith.

Almost too easy.

"The problem with Mark is he was always so much bigger and stronger than all his peers, and that made him a lazy kid," said John Meiers, his coach at Arcadia High School in Southern California. "One day in practice I just lost it and screamed at him in front of the entire ballclub.

"I told him that he thought he was so good, some Division I hotshot who is going to be this big star and play in the major leagues. I told him he wasn't going to amount to anything, that his career was going to be over after high school, because talent alone wasn't enough."

A star outfielder whose future never was questioned to that point, Smith -- whom Meiers described as "the cream of the crop by just existing" -- left practice that day a humbled young man. Now, after being selected ninth in the first round of Tuesday's amateur draft, Smith credits that tongue-lashing with turning his career around.

"I just went home shocked," said Smith, who hit .468 that senior season in high school. "It put me in reality and motivated me to work hard and maximize my talent. I just wish he had done it earlier."

Coming off his junior season at the University of Southern California, Smith has no apparent flaws in his game. You want power? The 6-foot-2, 200-pound athlete had 16 home runs, 80 RBI and a team-leading .668 slugging percentage in helping his team to a 46-17-1 record.

You want speed? How about 18 steals in 22 attempts with seven triples? Consistency? Try the .417 on-base percentage and a .336 batting average.

"He's certainly one of the best players in the West, and he destroyed the Arizona Wildcats this year," said Jerry Kindall, coach at Arizona and an assistant coach on Team USA, which will represent the country in international competition. "You have to include him with the highly regarded players I've seen in my 20 years. I saw Fred Lynn and some of the other terrific players coming out of this conference, and Mark ranks right up there."

Smith was an All-Pac-10 pick and an All-American this season, but he wasn't highly recruited out of high school because of his work habits. It was only after his performance during the tryouts for the annual California North-South high school All-Star game after his senior year that Southern Cal came calling.

"I told him that I would be in the stands promoting him, but that I would be embarrassed if he wasn't doing it between the white lines," Meiers said. "This was a kid that a lot of people would say, 'Fine, but can he get his uniform dirty?' But Mark put on a show, crashing into walls making catches, diving into bases, breaking up double plays. He was incredible."

And Smith's effort hasn't been questioned since. During a typical season, Smith will spend hours viewing baseball tapes to pick out his flaws, as well as weaknesses in opponents. And, while at home, he's either working out in the weight room or hitting more than 150 balls a day in the backyard batting cage.

"Working hard has gotten addictive," Smith said. "I realized after my freshman year that I could play this game. And after the Cape Cod season [where, using wood bats, Smith hit .408 last summer against top college players], I realized I could do it well professionally."

Smith said he is hoping to attend tryouts in Tennessee next week for Team USA, but will first try to come to terms with the Orioles. Meanwhile, he plans on working out in the cage and with weights daily.

"I think I'm a guy who doesn't have many holes -- I think I can run, throw, hit for power and hit for average," said Smith. "I'm happy with what I've done, but I'm not content. I keep feeling this need to go to the next level."

The man who once questioned Smith's heart said he has no doubts that that will happen.

"He wasn't driven in high school, but he's a driven young man now," Meiers said. "He'll be in your yard before long. There's no doubt that Smitty's going to be there."

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