By Bryan Levine, SunCoast Sports
PORT CHARLOTTE — When you’re growing up and playing tag or hide-and-go-seek with the neighborhood kids, there’s usually that one person who’s faster than the rest and wins every time.
Tampa Bay Rays’ outfielder Mallex Smith may have been the stolen-base king of the Midwest League in 2013, but he didn’t rule the backyard games of Tallahassee as a child.
“The funny thing is, growing up, a lot of guys moved just like me,” Smith said. “My friends and I would race all the time. There was never a for-sure winner in those races. A few us were really, really close to each other.”
Smith is generally considered one of the fastest players in baseball. When scouts grade any of a players’ skills it’s on a scale of 10 to 80.
Smith’s speed is an 80.
Despite his speed as a 23-year-old, and having collected 229 stolen bases in 398 minor league games (leading the Midwest in 2013 with 64 steals), it took some time for that speed to mature.
“The speed didn’t develop crazy until my senior year (in high school) and then I started to work on it and focus on it,” Smith said. “I was just running off natural ability. There’s a lot of guys fast like that, but once I started to have to run for times and train for it, I built my speed up.”
As that speed increased as a senior at Rickards High School in Tallahassee, Smith became a fierce safety on the football team. It made opposing receivers in North Florida hesitant to come across the middle of the secondary with him lurking.
“I was kind of realizing I was probably going to play baseball, so instead of going for balls to intercept, I was more of a head hunter,” Smith said. “There were two games back-to-back where I had 19 tackles one game and 20 tackles the next.
“I was still a little guy, so I don’t know how much the hits hurt them, but I gave them all I had.”
Smith was drafted in the 11th round by the Milwaukee Brewers out of high school, but elected to attend Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville instead. The San Diego Padres took Smith the next year in the fifth round, and he left Florida to play professional baseball.
He spent two years in the Padres organization before they traded him to the Atlanta Braves. It was a conflicting feeling for him.
“I didn’t even have a chance to be sad about it,” Smith recalled. “I remember I was on the field back home taking BP with some of the guys and I get the phone call from my agent to tell me I was traded. I told them about it and everybody was excited. I didn’t even know how to feel. Everybody around me was happy.”
Smith made his major league debut on April 11, 2016 with the Braves in Washington against the Nationals. In front of his entire family, Smith collected his first-career hit against Max Scherzer that day.
It’s a game he’ll never forget. Not necessarily because of the positives, but because he’s reminded of it every time he looks in the mirror.
After the single, Smith did what he does best — steal a base. Somehow, on the slide into second, he suffered a laceration above his left eye when his helmet fell off and cut him.
“That never happened to me before,” said Smith, who received five stitches from the cut, but was back in the starting lineup the next day.
“I guess the way I was wearing my helmet, it bounced off the ground, bounced up and hit my forehead. It had never happened, so I don’t even know how to explain how it happened.”
Smith’s time with the Braves didn’t last very long. Although, it did last longer than his stint with the Seattle Mariners.
On Jan. 11 of this year, the Braves traded Smith to the Mariners around 1:30 p.m.
“I started off going to practice at the Atlanta facility. I was just waking up from a nap and they told me I was traded,” Smith said.
He received a call from Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto less than an hour and a half later.
“I was expecting to hear a ‘congratulations. We’re glad to have you,'” Smith said. “But what he said was ‘we’ll tell you congratulations, but we’re going to trade you again.’”
The Mariners quickly moved Smith to the Rays, where he’s appeared in three games so far this spring.
He used that speed in his debut, laying down a perfect bunt down the third-base line for a single.