North Star Smith

By JOE McFARLAND

If he didn’t already know, LaRon Smith is quickly learning that moving up the ranks in professional baseball is a marathon and not a sprint.

The 19-year-old Spruce Grove native burst onto the national baseball scene with Baseball Canada’s Junior National Team in 2018 and expectations were high as the Dawgs Academy product made mincemeat out of opposition pitching.

He turned the heads of the Minnesota Twins, who drafted the 6-foot-2, 220-pound infielder in the 25th round of the 2018 Major League Baseball Draft.

The club immediately started converting him into a catcher and he saw 13 games of action that summer with the Gulf Coast League Twins, hitting .205 with a pair of runs batted in.

Smith started to gain some momentum in 2019, hitting .281 with an RBI in nine games before injuries shortened his season.

He has spent the off-season working on a number of things in hopes of making a bigger impact in 2020. We chatted with the young man ahead of pitchers and catchers reporting to MLB Spring Training for a recent episode of Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast.

Q: Heading into your second spring training, how excited are you to get going?

A: I’ve been itching at the chance to get into spring training and show what I really can do.

Q: It must be an interesting dynamic for you this time around as you’re coming off some injury woes in 2019. What was the key going into winter and trying to get yourself set up for camp?

A: Really, just losing weight was my biggest goal. And definitely that my shoulder will be healthy and make sure I’m healthy in general. Changing up my diets and stuff like that. Yeah, really just come back strong and make sure I can play a full season.

Q: How happy were you with your performance in the games that you did get in?

A: Yeah, last year I felt like it was a good year for my bat but the injury cut it short. I’m definitely looking to add on to that and show what I can do on both sides of the field.

Q: Tell us a little more about your first couple of years in pro baseball. Anything take you by surprise or that has stuck out to as you’ve tried to capture the attention of the Twins?

A: Honestly, just the non-individualism. You know how pro ball always has that stigma of it being individualized and everyone doing everything for themselves. Once you form a bond with some of these guys, everyone roots for each other.

Q: What’s the biggest learning curve you’ve had to adjust to?

A: Definitely catching, that’s for sure. I still have that infielder’s blood in me so I still try to pick everything. But I’m trying to hone in on stuff like blocking and getting into the catching mindset.

Q: How different is it to be a catcher? I mean, you talk to different catchers and it’s such a unique vantage point as you look out at the field and kind of captain everything.

A: It’s very different. Having all of that control is kind of crazy. I feel like that was a little overwhelming for me the first couple of years. Really just getting to know everybody, knowing your pitchers, knowing your infielders. Just always having that open communication with coaches and pitchers and players on your team, it really helps you relax into that captain role a little bit.

Q: Have you leaned on anyone in particular to help with that transition into catching?

A: Really just all my catching coordinators here and a lot of the catchers here. We’re kind of like one big family and want the best for everybody so we’re always trying to help each other and stuff like that. But yeah, a lot of the guys here are really good so it’s not bad trying to ask them a few questions.

Q: I know you’ve been back home over the winter. Anyone you’d like to single out who have helped you get game ready?

A: For a while there, I was working in Edmonton with Mike Johnson. Just talking about how he attacked hitters and stuff like that. Getting the pitchers’ side really helped me try to focus on a game-plan going into spring training. And then down with the (Okotoks) Dawgs, definitely talked to (Aaron) Ethier about catching and (Tyler) Hollick about hitting. Just getting an open communication through them is always good to help me.

Q:  I’ve been chatting with a few players as they are getting ready for spring training and I’m curious about something. Have you found yourself awestruck at all, like “holy crap, I’m here”?

A: Hahaha! Yeah, that was my first year, that’s for sure. My first year was crazy, my first spring training as well. Because you get guys who just come over to your field randomly like Nelson Cruz and all those big name players that you grew up watching on TV. That’s when you know – holy – it’s real, I’m here.

Q: The Twins have made a few moves in the offseason including former Blue Jays star Josh Donaldson. I assume that will be one of the players you want to be watching and learning from.

A: I mean, as much as you want to open that communication with them. Obviously, they’re always busy on the big league side. But I’ve seen Donaldson hitting in cages and stuff like that when I was with Team Canada and watching how much effort he puts into those little time periods in the cages. It’d be awesome to pick his brain a little bit.

Q: Speaking of picking brains, how much of spring training is exactly that. It’s not necessarily always about showing off what you can physically, but you have that downtime with teammates who are at different levels so you have that opportunity to chat with them about their journeys.

A: Yeah, like I said, everybody is here and has the same goal. But everyone’s asking questions, especially if you get someone coming in from a higher level than you, someone in a different position who has been working. You always have that open communication with everyone and it’s a pretty good environment, in general.

Q: Speaking of goals, have you set any out for yourself for 2020?

A: Yeah, for sure. Obviously, the big one in my head is staying healthy for a whole season. Making a team out of spring training would be great. And then getting a couple of games catching under my belt would be a pretty big goal as well.

Q: It was about a year ago when we last chatted. Does it amaze you how far you’ve come even since then?

A: Oh yeah. 100-percent. It’s crazy how much my growth has come. Even when I was injured, just learning how to rehab and routines, all that stuff. Just making sure how to keep my body healthy and all that. It’s been tremendous for me to get my body where it needs to be to perform at such a high level.

Q: There’s obviously the physical and health side of things. But what about the mental side of the game. How much of that is preached at the major or minor league level?

A: Pretty big here now. We got a bunch of mental health coaches around here now, which is going to be awesome. When I got injured last year, I struggled with the mental health side a little bit. This offseason, I really honed in on it to make sure I’m mentally strong to play a full season.

Q: You also have your brother, Kobe, down at the University of Houston. How much did you lean on him during the good times and bad?

A: When he was down during the holidays, I was just real with him and told him that I think I went through a pretty dark hole when I got injured. He just told me about his struggles in college and how he fought through it, too. I really leaned on him for advice and stuff like that and have used it ever since.

Q: How nice is it to have that ace in your back pocket like that?

A: It’s indescribable, I guess. Having my brother with me, having that baseball mind that has been through it a lot longer than I have and had his struggles and had very good seasons has been big. Just getting to pick his brain about the highs and lows and what got him through all of that. It’s great to have it in my back pocket.

Q: And now you get to turn a bit of a chapter heading into the new year. What excites you the most about heading into the spring?

A: Definitely just how my body has been feeling and excited to put on a show in spring training.

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