SEATTLE — The smile never left Chris Smith’s face as he talked about the opportunity that awaits Saturday.
The right-hander joined the A’s at Safeco Field on Friday, in advance of his first career major league start. At age 36, he will become the oldest pitcher in A’s history to make his first big league start.
He appeared in 13 games out of the bullpen for Oakland last season, ending a six-year absence from the major leagues. From 2011-2015, he kicked around the minors with Seattle and San Diego, took the mound for two different independent league teams and even returned to school at UC Riverside, taking sociology courses and serving as an undergraduate pitching coach for the baseball team.
“Two tours of winter ball and two tours of independent ball. I’m in Safeco Field now,” Smith said. “It’s just unbelievable. It’s just part of the ride, I guess.”
Smith’s unique story includes the fact that he’s lived in a 33-foot camper trailer in Nashville for the past two seasons while playing with the A’s Triple-A club. His wife, Lisa, is a teacher. She and their three daughters join him during the summer.
Smith got the call-up from Nashville to fill in Saturday for Jharel Cotton, who required a trip to the 10-day disabled list for blister issues. The A’s are hopeful of getting Cotton back for his first turn after the All-Star break, so this could be a cameo in the rotation for Smith.
But that’s missing the point.
When manager Bob Melvin addressed the team upon the start of spring training in February, he referred to Smith as the example of why every player in the farm system should keep working hard, never knowing when a call from the bigs might come.
“We’re excited about (Saturday),” Melvin said. “This guy made a big impression on us last year, what he’s been through.”
After getting released in 2011 while pitching in Seattle’s system, Smith decided to go back to school at UC Riverside. He assumed at that point his playing career had ended and a coaching career might be starting. But he got the itch to give it one more try. He wasn’t going to pursue an opportunity in independent ball until he got the blessing of his wife.
“When it came time, I said if that’s what he wanted to do, I supported him,” Lisa Smith said in a phone interview. “It’s what we knew, and we missed it. It’s what I knew. I missed watching baseball.”
Independent ball led to a minor league deal with the Padres in June 2014. Then the A’s signed him to a minor league deal before the 2016 season. This year he’s gone 4-3 with a 3.16 ERA in 15 games (12 starts) for Nashville.
As for their in-season home on wheels, the Smiths own a 33-foot Forest River EVO.
“It’s so much fun,” Lisa said. “We go find campgrounds. We meet people. We meet our neighbors.”
She’ll be in the stands Saturday night. It will mark Smith’s 64th career major league appearance, but his first start in a career that began way back in 2008 with the Red Sox.
All the dues he’s paid make him appreciate these late-career opportunities even more.
“Competing with younger kids,” he said, “and competing with those prospects like I was at one time, then to get that phone call (for a promotion), it’s a nice little soft pat on the butt.”