It’s common early in the spring to have former players hanging around Coastal Carolina baseball practices, getting in some work and preparing for their upcoming professional seasons.
But seeing former pitcher Ben Smith at Springs Brooks Stadium over the last month has held a special significance for the Chanticleers.
After having his final collegiate season cut short by Tommy John surgery, Smith has spent most of the past year overcoming an even greater challenge after being diagnosed with Burkitt leukemia/lymphoma last summer.
Standing off to the side as the Chants took batting practice a few weeks ago, Smith reflected on this past year while starting with the good news – he is in remission and cleared to resume his baseball career.
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“I’ve been feeling good,” Smith said. “I went out Feb. 15 and had a CT scan and it was all clear, so it’s still in remission. They don’t say cancer-free, they give it about six months to a year so I’ll go back every three months for check-ups. But right now I’m ready to go. The Astros want me down there for extended [spring training] so it’s giving me a little time to get my weight back and get back into things.
“I’ve been cleared by the team doctor and the oncologist who had me so it’s been quite a ride.”
One nobody expects to take on as a young 20-something fresh out of college and on the doorstep of a lifelong goal.
Everything was trending upward for the talented left-hander after he earned first-team All-Big South recognition as a sophomore in 2013 and was set to take over as the ace of the Chants’ pitching staff as a junior in 2014.
But that season ended for Smith after six starts due to an elbow injury and subsequent Tommy John surgery, wrapping up his collegiate career with a collective 2.57 earned-run average and 181 strikeouts over 178 1/3 innings.
Trusting his potential and the almost standard recovery nowadays for pitchers who undergo the procedure, the Houston Astros drafted him that summer in the 17th round.
The first question to the doctor when we got to Texas was, ‘When can I play again?’ So I definitely never stopped thinking about it, and going through all this experience it puts perspective on things and it’s really showed me that this is what I want to do. And I’m going to put everything I have into making it as far as I can.
Former CCU pitcher Ben Smith
Focused on getting his arm ready again, Smith was finally all the way back and set to make his professional debut last June with the Rookie-league Greeneville (Tenn.) Astros when he learned he was suddenly facing a far greater setback.
“We went out there on a Thursday, you have five days of team practice before the first game starts,” Smith said, recounting the story. “I was supposed to start the second game, it was going to be on a Wednesday and that Monday they said I had mono. I hadn’t been feeling that good so they told me to hang out in the hotel.
“I just wasn’t feeling very good. I got to the field on Saturday, I was still trying to do some arm care stuff [and I] was just feeling really bad. It got to the point where I couldn’t bend over to put socks on. My stomach was so distended, my legs had started to swell up so they took me to the ER and did a CAT scan. The guy came in and said it looked like cancer. You definitely don’t plan on hearing that.”
The website for the Lymphoma Association describes Burkitt lymphoma as a “high-grade non-Hodgkin lymphoma that ... is one of the fastest growing lymphomas. This means, though, that it is more likely to be cured by treatment than many other types of lymphoma.”
A GoFundMe.com account set up to help with the medical and travel costs associated with his treatments collected more than $16,000, and the Coastal Carolina baseball program would hold an exhibition game with the Czech Republic national team in October to raise a little more money for the cause.
All the while, Smith was focused pretty equally on two things – his recovery and getting back on the field.
“Hearing that I had cancer was one of the hardest things and knowing I wouldn’t be able to play,” he said. “... The first question to the doctor when we got to Texas was, ‘When can I play again?’ So I definitely never stopped thinking about it, and going through all this experience it puts perspective on things and it’s really showed me that this is what I want to do. And I’m going to put everything I have into making it as far as I can.”
And along with his actual family, nobody wants to see that happen more than his Coastal Carolina baseball family.
Chants baseball coach Gary Gilmore said he hopes he can be there when that day comes to fruition, when Smith finally gets to make his long-awaited professional baseball debut.
“It’s just nice to see him. I can see more color coming into his face and that big smile, it’s just infectious to be around,” Gilmore said. “Of all the players you’ve ever coached, there’s always a lot of really good ones, he was one of the very best that did everything you ever asked of him. I just hope the good Lord gives him an opportunity to show his true skill level in professional baseball because that kid will work tirelessly to get back. I know he’s hungry and eager and I’m looking forward to seeing him get there.
“What a great day that will be. I hope all of us coaches get a chance if it’s a minor league game somewhere, I hope we can all be there to watch him pitch because he’s a special young man.”
Said longtime Chants pitching coach Drew Thomas: “When you see his face it brings a smile to you. He means a lot to this program. He exemplifies what this program means.”
As for the baseball part of his recovery, Smith said he’s drawn inspiration from a few sources, including Clemson pitcher Clate Schmidt, who recovered from another form of lymphoma diagnosed last June and is now 4-0 with a 3.56 ERA for the Tigers, and Chicago Cubs ace Jon Lester, who returned from yet another form of lymphoma to thrive as one of the best pitchers in Major League Baseball with the Boston Red Sox and now Cubs.
Smith said he reached out to Schmidt personally with some questions about his recovery.
“He said, ‘Just work hard in the weight room. It will come back slowly, but it will come back eventually,’” he said. “Seeing him definitely makes it a little better, and obviously Lester, I read up a lot on him.”
Smith ramped up his throwing routine a couple months ago and April now marks two years since his elbow surgery. He said his arm feels good; it’s just a matter of rebuilding strength and getting back into form. He was still working out on campus this week while expecting to leave Saturday for extended spring training.
All the while thankful to again be pouring his full focus into baseball while seeing how far toward his dream that left arm can take him.
“If you take some positives, I guess I got some extra rest,” he said.