by Eric Apalategui | © Washington State University
You don't want to be around him when he loses...
Kelly Smith harbors such desire to win, that the coach gets testy for days before an ordinary baseball game. From the first pitch to the last, he's usually demonstrative, typically pessimistic, and occasionally combative. Along the baseline, his eyes seem to radiate heat while his mouth hurls verbal spears.
If you only encountered Smith at the ballpark, you might see why he playfully describes his diamond demeanor with a term that won't appear in this article.
"I think 'intense' is a nicer term," offered Smith ('80 Ed., Soc. Stud.), a former Cougar star who became the wildly successful skipper of the Red Devils baseball team at Lower Columbia College in Longview.
"Nobody really likes to play against me because I want to win," Smith said last fall as he prepared for his 12th campaign with the Red Devils. "I want to win every time out there. I'm just a little jerk."
And win Smith has. His LCC teams prevail in nearly four of every five games, have never missed the Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges tournament, and earned a spot in eight title games in his first 11 seasons. The Red Devils nabbed the trophy in half of those title appearances, including the 2004 championship last May to top off a 35-5 regular season.
"He's a good coach and a poor loser," Washington State University head baseball coach Donnie Marbut said with a chuckle. Marbut previously coached at Edmonds and Bellevue community colleges and was among Smith's toughest rivals. "He's a good guy. I'd rather spend time with him off the field than on the field."
"Unless you play for me, there's no reason to hate me," Smith said—off the field and out of season, when he's perfectly relaxed. "I'm a decent guy."
"When you play for him, you really don't like him all that much," said Ryan Krauser, center fielder on LCC's latest title team and now at Washington State, where he is red-shirting this season due to an injury. "Once you're done playing for [Smith], you realize he gets the best out of you, because he pushes you and constantly challenges you. I'm pretty much ready for anything."
"Everybody has to work hard in the world to be a success. He's a hard worker," said Chuck "Bobo" Brayton ('50 Phys. Ed.,'59 M.S. Phys. Ed.), the legendary WSU coach who is as impressed by Smith's coaching ability today as he was by Smith's fielding and hitting years ago. "He's got it all. I would have liked to see Kelly back here as an assistant or a head coach."
Smith's reputation wouldn't surprise anyone who followed Cougar baseball in 1980, when the speedy center fielder led the Pac-10 Conference with his .418 batting average, stole 30 bases, and crossed home plate an astonishing 69 times in 48 games on a talented team. Smith, also a defensive standout, was named a third-team All-American and selected in the 13th round of the professional draft. During a four-year career in the San Francisco Giants' organization, he worked up to Triple A, the final stop before the major leagues.
Yet, after playing prep ball in Longview, Smith said he likely wasn't good enough to compete at Washington State or even Lower Columbia College, already one of the region's best community college programs.
"I was the scrawniest little player you've ever seen," he said. "I was always fast and scrappy and a pain in the butt to play against."
Western Washington University's coach, Ralph Dickinson, saw Smith's potential and made sure he got playing time and hit the weight room. Smith would collect all-league honors at Western and by 1979 was ready to join Dickinson in Pullman when his mentor joined Brayton's staff.
After his pro career, Smith was an assistant coach at Portland State University and worked briefly outside the game before arriving at Lower Columbia as head coach, classroom teacher, and "head groundskeeper."
Smith knows that "the chance of making the big leagues and making big money are slim and none." So far, none of his former players have reached that pinnacle. But with his program built on discipline on the field and in the classroom, nearly all players go on to play ball and earn degrees at four-year colleges and universities.
"His guys know how to play," Marbut said. "They come prepared."
"Without him, I would probably be about two steps back from where I am," said Krauser, Smith's former player.
Players' successes beyond may make coaching rewarding, but it's all that darned winning that makes it fun.
"You don't want to be around me when we don't win," Smith said. "I'm pretty sure it's not the thrill of victory [that motivates his players]. It's the agony of defeat—and that would be me."
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