Smith enjoying every minute of comeback

A's 35-year-old reliever returned to college, went six years between MLB appearances

Smith enjoying every minute of comeback

OAKLAND -- The rental bikes were already secured, but Kendall Graveman didn't know this. He thought Chris Smith was kidding, after all.

It's only six miles, Smith said.

Graveman laughed but obliged, and so did Jesse Hahn. The trek began on Michigan Avenue, extending across a lengthy stretch parallel to Lake Michigan and through Chinatown in Chicago. The A's team bus caught up to the three pitchers about two blocks from U.S. Cellular Field, honking at them relentlessly.

Graveman laughed again. Smith did, too.

"We just rode bikes to the park," Smith said. "That was really cool."

"His perspective on everything is one of the best," Graveman said.

That's because Smith has navigated longer journeys than 30-minute bike rides to the ballpark, going six years between big league appearances and experiencing a heckuva lot along the way: the 35-year-old stepped away from the game, dropped his agent, returned to his hometown and re-enrolled at UC Riverside. He became an assistant coach at the university and a father to three daughters with his wife, Lisa.

Life was good, which is why he was hesitant when he got the phone call.

It was the spring of 2013, two years after being released by the Mariners, and Smith was readying to be Riverside's pitching coach when the Wichita Wingnuts of the independent American Association phoned, asking if he wanted to play.

Smith agreed, putting in motion a sequence of events that, to this day, even he has trouble believing.

"I didn't think I could get picked up," Smith said. "I just wanted to have fun and play baseball."

Except Smith did well -- really well -- and opportunities followed. He played winter ball in Venezuela, then latched on with the Sugar Land Skeeters of the independent Atlantic League in the spring of 2014, the same springboard used by former A's pitcher Scott Kazmir.

Smith went 6-0 with a 2.15 ERA in eight starts for Sugar Land, prompting another life-altering phone call, this time from the Padres, who expressed their interest in a Minor League deal.

"When I got that information, it was a rush of excitement," Smith said. "You can't explain it. That excitement, it was the same as getting called up to the big leagues."

Even today, Smith exudes an enthusiasm that is unmatched.

"I know I can go to the bottom," Smith said. "I was already there. I came out of the bottom. I know what it's like to be not wanted, to be injured, to be released, all those things. What I want to hold on to is what it's like to be in the big leagues. My dad told me, 'Smitty, you're going to work the rest of your life, so if you can play baseball and prolong it, just do that.' I'm 35, still prolonging it."

Oakland invited Smith to big league camp this spring and selected him from Triple-A on Aug. 7. He pitched in his first Major League game since 2010 that night, tossing a scoreless inning against the Cubs, and he's made seven more appearances, racking up 20 strikeouts in 15 1/3 innings.

Smith K's Fowler

Even more than his performance in a lost A's season, though, Smith's unwavering zest for the game and appreciation of its many privileges has been a significant addition to their clubhouse.

"I think he literally takes one game at a time and enjoys being here," Oakland manager Bob Melvin said. "I don't know that there's anybody that appreciates it more than he does, and that's a good place to be. It's a refreshing perspective. He's getting the most out of every day and enjoying it as much as he can, and it's fun to watch that, especially when you're going through a season like we are now."

"I'm a big kid, and I get to enjoy this," Smith said, "because I know what it's like to be at home on the couch. I know what it's like to be in independent ball. I know what it's like to be a coach. I'm not on the couch. I'm in the big leagues.

"You just want to hold onto it as long as you can, because you know how easy it can be taken from you. I have so much fun coming to the ballpark."

Sitting in the visitors' dugout at Busch Stadium last month, Smith looked out at the Gateway Arch. Just months prior, he brought his kids to see the same monument while driving from Nashville to Iowa, telling them, "This is where dad played when he was with the Brewers."

"Now I'm back here," Smith said, "and they think it's the coolest thing."

Smith uses FaceTime to share his surroundings with them often. He also sends them pictures, and not just of scenery, because he even gets a kick out of things like clubhouse kitchens -- "It looks like 7-Eleven," he said -- and knows his kids would too.

Drafted in the fourth round by the Red Sox in 2002, Smith made 50 relief appearances for Boston and Milwaukee from '08-10. During that same period with the Brewers, John Axford made his debut.

"Chris was the one helping me along with what to do and how to act and where to sit and how to behave, making sure you're taking taxis before the bus and getting to the park before the bus does, all those things like that," Axford said. "Knowing the path that he's had and how difficult this is, doing this in general, trying to get here and stay here, for him to take six years, step away from the game for a while and then to get back here, it's very, very impressive and a true testament to his character and the determination he has."

Said Graveman: "He doesn't take one day for granted. If he would have come back up for a week and that's it, it would have been the best week of his life."

Jane Lee has covered the A's for MLB.com since 2010. Follow her on Twitter @JaneMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.