In 2011, John Axford was named the Mustached American of the Year by the American Mustache Institute. It is an honor, Axford says, he may not possess without Chris Smith.
The previous spring, Axford and Smith were pitching in the Milwaukee Brewers’ organization. Near the end of camp, Axford was waiting to learn if he would begin the season in the majors. One morning, Axford told Smith that if optioned to Triple A, he would start growing a mustache. He was sent down later that day.
“He was like, ‘You gotta grow one. You said you were going to, no backing out,’ ” said Axford, who soon after began crafting what became his trademark facial hair and is now a reliever for the A’s. “That’s where my mustache kind of took off from.”
While Axford’s career was taking off then, Smith’s was going in another direction. Smith spent most of 2010 in the Brewers’ minor-league system. A year later, he was out of baseball. He was in his late 20s, a father, not expecting to pitch in another major-league game. And that remained the case – until Sunday, when the right-hander entered the A’s 3-1 loss to the Chicago Cubs and threw a scoreless ninth inning.
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“It’s really incredible,” Axford said of Smith’s road back to the majors. “It really is.”
People ask, ‘Are you excited?’ Well, it’s the big leagues. You’re excited all the time. It wasn’t really excitement. It was more along the lines of an accomplishment, like, ‘Wow, I just did that. That just happened.’
A’s reliever Chris Smith, on his return to the majors Sunday
Smith, drafted in the fourth round by the Boston Red Sox out of UC Riverside in 2002, made 50 relief appearances for Boston and Milwaukee from 2008-10, recording a 5.19 ERA. He started the 2011 season in Triple A with the Seattle Mariners, who released him that May. Instead of looking for another team, Smith turned his focus away from baseball.
He moved back to his hometown of Hesperia in Southern California. He re-enrolled at UC Riverside, with the intention of completing a sociology degree. At the invitation of Doug Smith, then the school’s baseball coach, Smith rejoined the program as an assistant pitching coach.
“I was content. I was happy,” Smith said. “I was trying to be the next pitching coach for UC Riverside.”
As a coach, Smith said, he played catch with the pitchers, threw batting practice and helped with drills. When not on campus, he was home taking care of his infant daughter. He split his time between student life and his priority of being “a stay-at-home dad.”
“Pack my lunch in the morning, go to school, go to practice after, and come home,” Smith said.
But in the spring of 2013, Smith got a call from the Wichita Wingnuts of the independent American Association, asking if he wanted to pitch that season. They had to contact him directly since Smith, certain his playing days were over, no longer had an agent. At 31, Smith said, it was not a straightforward decision.
“I asked my wife what she thought about me going to play independent ball,” Smith said. “She kind of chuckled. ‘It’s your career, not mine. You do what you feel is right.’ ”
Still, Smith wasn’t sure. His first answer was a no. When the Wingnuts called back a week later, he changed his mind.
“They said, ‘The only thing is, we’re going to need you to start,’ ” Smith said. “I was like, uh-oh.”
You just keep playing and playing – it’s a fun game. You have those thoughts of, ‘Can I ever do it again? Will I ever do it again? It’d be nice to do it again.’ But you don’t have control over it. You can just do what you do.
A’s reliever Chris Smith, on his journey back to the majors
Smith started playing catch seriously to build his stamina, working in bullpen sessions along with his coaching duties at UC Riverside. He pitched well that season in Wichita, then had a successful stint in a Venezuelan winter league. But he still wondered about his ability to get hitters out: “Is it me or the league?”
To find out, he signed in 2014 with the Sugar Land Skeeters of the independent Atlantic League, a higher level of competition. In eight starts, Smith was 6-0 with a 2.15 ERA. That got the attention of the San Diego Padres, who offered him a minor-league contract. This time, the choice was much clearer.
“I was like, absolutely,” Smith said. “Don’t even twist my arm. Let’s go.”
Smith spent the rest of 2014 with the Padres’ Triple-A affiliate in El Paso, posting a 5.61 ERA in 14 games but striking out more than a batter per inning. After spending last season in the minors with the Padres, he signed with the A’s and was 6-8 with a 3.93 ERA in 22 starts at Triple-A Nashville before being called up Sunday.
“You just keep playing and playing – it’s a fun game,” Smith said. “You have those thoughts of, ‘Can I ever do it again? Will I ever do it again? It’d be nice to do it again.’ But you don’t have control over it. You can just do what you do.”
On his first morning in the Coliseum clubhouse, Smith spotted Axford across the way. They hadn’t kept in close contact after Smith left the Brewers, but they reconnected this spring at A’s camp. When Axford broke into the majors with Milwaukee in late 2009, he said, Smith helped show him the ropes – where to sit on the team bus, when to get to the field for a game, how to “stay under the radar” as a rookie.
“To be able to do that, step away but come back into the game, it’s not something that happens very often,” Axford said. “Especially a guy that can take six years between pitching in the big leagues … that’s something that’s pretty rare and pretty amazing.”
Smith didn’t wait long to make his first appearance. He jogged in for the ninth Sunday and retired his first batter, Chicago’s Javier Baez, on a fly ball to center. Matt Szczur followed with a bunt single, but Smith struck out Dexter Fowler looking and got Kris Bryant to line out to left field.
“People ask, ‘Are you excited?’ ” Smith said Tuesday. “Well, it’s the big leagues. You’re excited all the time. It wasn’t really excitement. It was more along the lines of an accomplishment, like, ‘Wow, I just did that. That just happened.’ And after the first pitch, I was kind of telling myself, ‘Just one more pitch, one more pitch. If I can give myself a chance to throw one more pitch in the big leagues ...’
“Now it’s just normal. I already had my first pitch. Now it’s time to go out and kind of just be me.”