ATH Interview: Cleveland coach Steve Smith talks about Tony Gwynn, his days in Wichita and his experience on The Amazing Race
The Royals and Indians wrap up a brief two-game series in Cleveland today, beginning at 11:05 Central. Yesterday, we posted our conversation with Allie Smith, daughter of Cleveland third base coach Steve Smith. Today, we talk baseball and The Amazing Race with Steve. Special thanks to both Allie and Steve for their time!
ATH: You played in the minor leagues for San Diego. They had a guy named Ozzie Smith at the same time who was kind of blocking your path.
Smith (smiling): How’d you get your information on that? That’s pretty good! I always tell people I was in Triple-A playing short and Ozzie signed with the Padres. They said Smith was going to be the next shortstop for the Padres and they were right but it was Ozzie. He jumped all the way from rookie ball to the big leagues. I was an ok player but it wasn’t like an opportunity was taken away from me. I went as far as I could with my talent. They picked the right Smith, believe me.
ATH: The positive part was that you spent several seasons in Hawaii (San Diego’s Triple-A affiliate at the time).
Smith (smiling again): I was just not good enough to go to the Majors because Hawaii was so nice, I used to surf out there. We had a great manager in Doug Rader. Baseball has always been fun to me. That’s why I continue to be in it…I enjoy it. It’s fun and along with the hard work, I love the adrenaline that you get from playing, coaching and teaching a sport. It keeps you young because you’re dealing with young kids. I’m 57 years old and one day I’ll grow up I guess.
ATH: You were Tony Gwynn’s teammate during your last season as a player. Could you see his potential at that time?
Smith: Yeah. When everyone else was going to the beach, Tony was practicing with a tee. It’s the first time I recall seeing anyone use the tee. He did that religiously. When I was playing, you rarely got extra swings (other than batting practice). You had to throw to one another. Tony started using the tee and doing the soft toss. The thing that really impressed me was how he improved his outfield skills. He wasn’t a very good outfielder at the time and he didn’t have a great arm. He improved and ended up winning (five) Gold Gloves.
Smith: Yeah and it’s funny that our first base coach (with Cleveland) Sandy Alomar, Jr. and his brother Roberto were both on that team. That was my first championship. That same group went on to Triple-A next year, where they won the Pacific Coast League title in Las Vegas (with Smith managing). I had a good time in Wichita. It was a great place and when you win, it’s even more fun.
ATH: You made it to the Majors as a coach for the Mariners in 1996 after 20 years in the minors as a player and coach. What was that like?
Smith: Everyone who plays baseball has the goal of getting to the Majors and I didn’t get there as a player. It took me 20 years in the minors to finally get there. I can remember that first day like it was yesterday, standing there for the National Anthem, looking at the dome (Seattle’s Kingdome) and being a part of a Major League game. The pension plan isn’t in place in the minors. It’s good to set yourself up for later in life and make it a bit easier to send your kids to college.
Smith: Yeah after winning the World Series with Philly in 2008…something didn’t work out there and I took a year off. After 35 years it was a wonderful sabbatical to take a year off. Allie had just graduated from Pepperdine. She watches The Amazing Race and said “Dad, we should try to get on it”. I figured 20,000 people apply to get on it and our connection to baseball didn’t matter, they want the connection of two people. I figured there was no way that they would pick us. When you’re coaching third base, the last thing you want is for people to remember something stupid that you did on the show and to remind you of it every game. Since I was out of the game, I figured what the heck, I’ll be a good dad and say yes. Unbelievably, they picked us. I signed with Cleveland four days before we left. My daughter was perfect to go with…we had a wonderful time. We were already close. We were alternates and we didn’t have enough controversy among us. I compare it to being in the World Series, which is a dream for anyone. I can say that this might have even been better than the World Series because I got to travel all around the world with my daughter.
ATH: Had you been to any of the cities or countries before?
Smith: No, I had never been overseas. The funny thing is when we got on it, my wife planned fake trips where she would be in the back of the car with the map. We were getting lost in our own neighborhood. We were laughing at the fact that we were going to visit foreign countries with different languages…how far are we going to get if we get lost in our own neighborhood? What we found were wonderful people in other countries who were willing to help (with directions). My daughter says I met everyone in the world because I asked so many questions. That was our way of finding clues and finding where we were going.
ATH: Do you think the traveling in baseball helped you?
Smith: No doubt it did…being on bus rides for 20 years in the minors. They (show producers) keep you up for long hours to try to get the worst (emotions) out of you. They’ve got a camera on you 24/7. It was no problem for me, I go without sleep all the time. We slept in different quarters…tents in Argentina, a bad hotel in Chile that was loud all night and a wonderful place in Seychelles. We won that leg and our prize was to stay in a $14,000 a night hotel. I don’t think I’ll ever spend $14,000 a night for a place but it was gorgeous.
ATH: You won the Seychelles episode. How did you do on the other episodes?
Smith: I think we were fifth on the first show, sixth on the second show…we were just feeling it out. Everyone on that show is pretty cocky, very aggressive. To me, being out of my element, I was the other way, thinking “What have I gotten myself into?” All of a sudden on the third show we just went for it. We starting finishing in second and third, then picked up a first place. We were on our way until we had a bad cab driver in Malaysia. It was a quick show that only had two things to do. The cab driver lied to us and said he knew where he was going. The next thing you know, we were out.
ATH: The show just wrapped up (on May 9). Was it tough to stay quiet all winter about who won?
Smith: I couldn’t tell anyone, even my wife. She had to watch the show like everyone else. The only thing that was tough was when we got on a big roll and people really thought we were going to win it all after we won the (Seychelles) leg. The next week, I knew we were going out and everyone was so excited in anticipation of that show. I know the ratings of The Amazing Race went up big time when all of the players and former players started watching it. I felt like we let them down – I just joined this team and they were getting on me each week in Spring Training, which was fun. Everybody started getting into it and then we were out. The disappointment wasn’t losing the million dollars, it was not being able to play anymore. It was so much fun to rip open that card and find out that you’re going to a different country or bungee jumping or zip lining…my favorite was swimming, we had to swim about a mile and dive.
ATH: Did you watch the show as a group at Spring Training?
Smith: My family was there a couple of times. I have a lot of coaching friends with other clubs, so they’d come over when the family wasn’t there. We’d get the Mexican food out and the margaritas going and watching it. I didn’t know how they would edit the show, so I didn’t know how I would look. I just know one thing – my daughter never cried, never complained. She made me so proud, how strong she was. Everyone else, you could see how they were breaking down, the strongest competitors were losing it at times and we never did. We can walk around with our heads up high. We weren’t on a lot during the first few shows because we didn’t argue amongst ourselves or with others, but that’s ok. Other than not winning, there isn’t much people can say. I did paint the wrong house and do a back flip, but that’s not a big deal.
(Photo from The Amazing Race courtesy of CBS Broadcasting, Inc.)