PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.
Two years ago, Dominic Smith begged the Mets for weeks to let him try the outfield before they begrudgingly relented. The season before that, cult hero Wilmer Flores — a middle infielder on his way out the door — was allowed to block Smith’s path to first base, long before Pete Alonso did.
We could go on and on. Smith’s yet-undiagnosed sleep apnea causing him to show up late and be scratched from the 2018 Grapefruit League opener as punishment. The frustrating quadriceps injury that wiped out months of his development. The lingering stress fracture in his foot.
Nobody got to the point of calling Smith a first-round bust, but only because he still was on the right side of 25. And Smith refused to let them.
"It was tough," he said Thursday. "Nothing’s easy in this world. But I feel like the harder it gets, it just brings the character out of a person."
This isn’t officially a comeback story. Smith never went anywhere after being drafted 11th overall by the Mets in 2013. But to see him hosting an Instagram Live chat with boyhood idol Barry Bonds, as he did Sunday, and then showing up this week at Clover Park with only slightly less fanfare than Francisco Lindor is all part of the admirable process it took for him to get here.
The back of his baseball card tells you that Smith has only 728 plate appearances in the big leagues, with a career .811 OPS. But he’s been on a steady climb the past two seasons and truly arrived last year, hitting .316 with 10 homers, 42 RBIs and a .993 OPS in 50 games (of a pandemic-shortened 60-game schedule).
That performance, which included splitting time between first base and leftfield, was enough to earn Smith a 13th-place finish in the MVP voting.
Beyond that, he made a larger impact with his emotional reflections during the Black Lives Matter movement last summer, particularly after the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. From there, Smith quickly grew into a leadership role on these Mets, and not just between the lines.
"The man on and off the field is something to be proud of right now," said manager Luis Rojas, who has known Smith since their years together in the minor leagues. "Just so proud that he’s come along so far and he’s adjusted and he’s done his best whenever tough times come his way."
That Smith could be chosen to share an MLB social-media stage with Bonds, the seven-time MVP with 762 home runs, is more evidence of just how much he’s grown.
The conversation began with Smith asking Bonds about his own experiences dealing with racial prejudice throughout his career. It later turned to the art of hitting, with Bonds analyzing Smith’s swing and pledging to speak to him more about it during the season.
"That’s somebody that I would love to talk to on an everyday basis," Smith said. "And he’s just a great baseball mind — defensively, offensively. He broke my swing down. Told me to keep my hands higher and work down through the ball. I’m getting his number, so we’re gonna definitely talk more. It was like in a dream. I was in awe the whole conversation."
Somebody later posted a video of Smith’s swing side-by-side with Bonds, and he was "shocked" by the similarities. Many power hitters insist that home runs are merely the byproduct of solid barrel contact — not a focus on clearing the fences — and Smith subscribes to that mentality.
If you extend his ’20 production over a full season, that pushes him into the neighborhood of 30-plus homers. Not quite Bonds territory, but a great zip code for the Mets nonetheless.
"As long as I’m squaring up the baseball, hitting the ball hard and using the whole field, I’m going to hit a lot of home runs," Smith said.
The greater scrutiny with Smith, of course, involves his competence as a leftfielder. As long as there is no DH in the National League — many team execs still believe it can be pushed through by Opening Day — Smith will need to get his playing time at a position that remains relatively new for him.
After what he’s already fought through, however, he views leftfield as just the next challenge, another learning experience.
In Thursday’s drills, Smith held his own, spinning side-to-side to track down over-the-shoulder liners on the run. A number of players fumbled their attempts. Smith smoothly grabbed each one.
"At the end of the day, no matter what role you own on a big-league roster, this is still the best job in the world," Smith said. "There’s a million kids, a million adults, who would kill to be in your shoes, so you should never be upset, you should never pout, you should never be angry. I just don’t put wasted energy into stuff that I know I can’t control."
But this year, this spring training for really the first time, Smith has never felt better about where he’s at. Probably because he’s earned it.