ATLANTA — Had everything gone according to plan, had his body never broken down, these trips home to Turner Field would have been an annual rite for Josh Smoker.
The lefty was once a hard-throwing first-round draft pick of the Nationals. But arm trouble left him toiling in the independent leagues, his career nearly lost. It might have stayed that way if not for a chance encounter with a Mets’ scout that led him here, to the place where he first saw himself as a major leaguer.
“I’ve had a lot of memories here,” Smoker said before the Mets’ last game at Turner Field. “I’ll definitely miss it.”
This is not the razing of Tiger Stadium, or the death of Ebbets Field. The place has never inspired lyric little lines of poetry, or nicknames devoted to its everlasting charm. It won’t be mourned, certainly not by the Mets, for whom it has been a den of horrors.
“Not necessarily,” Mets manager Terry Collins said, when asked if he will miss the place. It was a diplomatic answer — barely — which came only after a long pause for effect.
Through the years, the Mets have had their playoff hopes squashed here, back during the height of baseball’s great overlooked rivalry. With Sunday’s 10-3 win over the Braves, the Mets finished 67-106 (.387) since 1997, since the Ted shed its Olympic roots and opened its doors for baseball. But Smoker’s relationship with Turner Field predates his time with the Mets.
“We came here all the time,” said Smoker, who has posted a 5.40 ERA in his first 12 appearances in the major leagues.
‘A bunch of flashbacks’
The Superstation — and the greatest pitching staff in the history of modern baseball — made the Braves into a national franchise in the 1990s. But Smoker’s devotion is locally sourced. He grew up about an hour away in Calhoun, Georgia, a town of about 15,000 that he still calls home.
As a boy, he spent too many summer days to count stationed in the plastic blue seats in leftfield. They were less faded then. This was when he still raced cars, on tiny dirt tracks, mostly. His father is an engineer. Had Smoker remained on this path, it could have taken him to NASCAR.
Baseball always tugged at him though, and in those days at the ballpark, he let his mind wander about stepping on this field one day. So when it finally became real — when Smoker extracted the Mets from a jam on Friday night — those hard-wired memories came spilling out.
“It was just a bunch of flashbacks of things you used to remember when you’re a kid,” he said. “So, finally actually getting to be here and play here was incredible.”
The vendors always caught his eye, and that is what he noticed first when he approached the ballpark on Friday afternoon. Outside the ballpark, dozens of them were setting up shop hours before the gates would open, just as they always have.
“I love boiled peanuts,” he said, recalling the favorite treat that would often accompany him to the ballpark.
During his senior year of high school, a friend of his father knew the agent for Rafael Furcal. It’s how a star-struck Smoker once spent time with the shortstop after a game.
Smoker remembered that meeting as he made his way to the visitors’ locker room on Friday. When he walked down the stadium’s concrete corridor, he passed the entrance of the Braves clubhouse, where Furcal had greeted him years before.
Finally, game time approached. Another artifact brought forth another memory. This one hangs over leftfield: the board that displays the radar-gun readings. It’s how Smoker came to appreciate the greatness of John Smoltz.
“It’s probably the same one,” Smoker said. “It has the old school lights on it. So, when we walked down to the bullpen, I looked at it, and I just started thinking about Smoltzy because I just loved watching him pitch.”
‘Wasn’t really expecting anything’
Calhoun is not a big place. But with the high school football team off on Friday night, Smoker said it felt as if half the town had descended upon Turner Field. During the game, some of them wandered over to the bullpen to shout words of encouragement. For many, it wasn’t the first time.
Every time a surgery went wrong, every time his career appeared to be near the end, it was those same friends and family in Calhoun that pushed him along.
“There were numerous times where I was like it’s kind of getting to the end,” Smoker said. “But they weren’t going to let that happen because they knew that I still love the game. They kept pushing me and like I said, if it wasn’t for them, I don’t know if I’d be here right now.”
As the middle innings approached, Smoker heard the thump of the drum in leftfield, which he called “one of my favorite things about coming here as a kid.”
Soon, that thumping would sound like his heart.
Drafted 31st overall in 2007 by the Nationals, Smoker, 27, underwent shoulder surgery the following year. It didn’t take. His fastball dipped and his career stalled, never rising past Class-A. In 2013, his final year of team control, he found himself under the knife again. This time, doctors replaced a torn labrum and rotator cuff, a major undertaking.
“I picked a bad time to get hurt,” said Smoker, who was released.
The market for sore-armed pitchers has never been robust, and when not a single big-league team inquired about his services, he found a home in the independent leagues. He posted a pedestrian 4.03 ERA for Rockford in the Frontier League.
But his velocity ticked up, returning to the 90s. And during the winter, he resolved he’d ramp his efforts in hopes of catching the eye of a big-league scout, a long shot. The most likely outcome was a return to Rockford, where had worked out a deal to start for the first time since his early days in pro ball. This was to be the last hurrah.
“I was just going to have fun and go back on my terms, just so I could go out happy,” Smoker said. “I wasn’t really expecting anything of it. Now, I’m here.”
‘It came on so fast’
As expected, Smoker kept throwing his bullpens, feeling good all the while. But nobody bothered to watch. He figured 2015 would begin back in the Frontier League. But one day, his regular catcher couldn’t make it. Smoker hastily arranged for a replacement, who unknown to him had a connection with Mets scout Steven Barningham.
The session went like any other until Smoker’s cellphone rang just 10 minutes into the car ride home. It was an invitation to throw for the Mets in Port St. Lucie, Florida. He arrived during the last week of spring training to threw about 30 pitches in front of Ron Romanick, the minor-league pitching coordinator.
Smoker left with a contract.
“It came on so fast that I really wasn’t expecting it,” he said.
By the middle of last summer, rival scouts raved about the broad-shouldered lefty with the booming fastball. Smoker was back, along with his velocity. The Mets believed it was promise worth protecting, adding him to the 40-man roster, clearing one more major hurdle in his road to the big leagues.
Smoker made his major-league debut on Aug. 19. His parents and his wife awoke in the middle of the night to book plane tickets to San Francisco to witness the event. The lefty has endured his ups and downs, though he has flashed the fastball that once made him a highly touted prospect.
Smoker did so again on Friday night. With about 70 of his friends and family in the stands, he inherited a mess: runners on first and third with nobody out. First, he struck out A.J. Pierzynski. Then, he got a double play out of Ender Inciarte.
Near the first-base bag, Smoker vaulted himself into the air, rejoicing in his own feat. Later, he relived it all with his parents and his wife at a Waffle House, the only place he could think of that was still open for a feast. After years and years of toil, Smoker finally had timing on his side.
“This was the last chance to get to play here,” Smoker said, as he walked up to Turner Field for the final time. “To get to play here right before they closed it was pretty cool.”