- By Jay Morrison Staff Writer
Even though Joe Smith had previously served as keynote speaker for the Wright State baseball program’s First Pitch Banquet, bringing him back for another appearance made perfect sense to coach Jeff Mercer.
Not only is Smith one of the most successful players to come out of the program, but appearances are something he specializes in, as he leads all Major League Baseball players in games pitched since 2007 when he made his debut.
“Mercer and I were talking about me doing it again, and then one day we were rabbit hunting and he was like, ‘You remember when you said you’d like to do it again? How about this year?’” Smith said last week while on campus to work out with the WSU team.
“I thought it seemed too soon, but then he refreshed my memory that’s actually been six years,” Smith added. “So I’m looking forward to it. It should be fun.”
The First Pitch Banquet is a program that features a sit-down dinner and silent auction, with proceeds benefiting current and future WSU student-athletes. This year’s event will be Feb. 3, at the Moraine Country Club.
With 698 appearances during his 11-year career with the New York Mets, Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Angels, Chicago Cubs and Toronto Blue Jays, taking the mound is something Smith is accustomed to doing. Take his turn at the podium is not.
Aside from his first appearance at the First Pitch Banquet in 2012, the only other time he spoke publicly was at the Huntington’s Disease Society of American’s 15th annual Celebration of Hope Gala in San Diego, where he was presented with the organization’s Guthrie Award.
Named for recording artist Woody Guthrie, who suffered from HD, the award is presented to an individual or group who embody Guthrie’s spirit by giving their voice to the fight against the disease through raising awareness and social activism.
Smith and his wife, CBS sports reporter Allie LaForce, have been raising awareness for HD since 2012 when Smith’s mother, Lee, was diagnosed.
Speaking at the First Pitch Banquet will give Smith another platform to shed light on the disease, which he has a 50 percent chance of contracting, and an encouraging breakthrough he hopes will lead to finding a cure.
“I’ve been talking with Mercer and my wife about the speech and what way to go with it,” Smith said. “Do you talk about something that’s passionate to you? Do you just go the baseball route? I’d kind of like to tie in both, and obviously what this university has meant to me.
“I come back here quite a bit,” added the Bellbrook resident. “It’s fun to come back and work out with these guys and act like a kid again and not have to worry about anything for a few hours. Every time I come back here it feels like family and friends walking through the athletic department.”
Since Smith’s last speech at the First Pitch Banquet, he has won a World Series ring with the Cubs in 2016. And last month he signed a two-year, $15 million contract with the defending champion Houston Astros.
Smith was playing for WSU when the First Pitch Banquet began, and he said he’s enjoyed watching it, and the baseball program as a whole, grow the last decade.
Tickets are $70, and more information can be found at wsuraiders.com.
The list of speakers at the First Pitch Banquet has included Marty Brennaman, Dusty Baker, Dave Stewart, Dwight Gooden and Scott Rolen.
“Since 2006 this program has grown immensely,” he said. “With Mercer at the helm, the program’s in good hands, and they keep getting better and better.
“It’s just fun to see a program really growing and being competitive last year getting ranked in the top 25 for the first time and this year they’re projected to be even better,” he continued. “So it’s fun to see the growth and know that when you come back here and try to help out, it’s going to a good cause and the program’s going in the right direction.”