By Rob Potter
SULLIVAN COUNTY April 10, 2007 As the Sullivan West junior varsity softball team begins its 2007 season this week, Coach Billy Smith is looking back on his own recently completed softball career.
Smith, who is entering his second year as coach of the JV Lady Bulldogs, capped his softball playing days by earning a gold medal at a prestigious tournament.
Back in December, the 41-year-old Hankins resident got a call from his old coach, Tom McAvoy from Stillwater.
“He’s a legend in his own right,” Smith said of McAvoy. “Mac played ball for the Washington Senators, and even struck out Ted Williams in a spring training game not too many people can say they struck out Williams.”
McAvoy told Smith that he was looking for a few extra guys to play for the Mac’s Marauders team of Balston Lake, which was entered in the eighth annual Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) International Fastpitch Tournament to be held in late January at the Disney Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla.
Smith jumped at the chance to go.
“I played in five of the eight games, didn’t strike out and didn’t embarrass myself as the team went 8-0, and won the Gold Medal game, ironically defeating another New York team,” Smith said. “There were so many countries represented, it was honestly the biggest thrill for me, among many in my fastpitch career.
“But I also knew it was time to hang up the spikes,” he continued. “Every little bone, joint, and muscle in my body hurt, and I didn’t even play much. But that’s my fault for not staying in shape. It was also a good way to go out on top having a gold medal hanging around my neck.
“So after the final team photo, I took off my spikes and left them at first base, which is my natural position. They were gone an hour later, I’m sure some little kid picked them up, and that was fine by me!”
So, will Smith be like some famous professional athletes who announce their retirement but return to the game just two or three years later?
“No, this is it,” he said. “To be able to go out with a gold medal is great. You can’t top that.”
Smith, who was born in New York City but grew up in the Orange County community of Greenwood Lake, began attending high school at John S. Burke Catholic in Goshen. But after one year, he transferred to Monroe-Woodbury High School. During his sophomore and junior years at M-W, he tried out for the soccer, basketball and baseball teams. He made it to the last cuts but was ultimately cut.
In his senior year, Smith only tried out for the M-W baseball team and he finally made it.
The following year, 1984, he had tryouts with the Detroit Tigers, St. Louis Cardinals, Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets. Playing just one year of varsity baseball and having no college experience, Smith was not picked up by any of those Major League teams. But he noted that “it was fun just trying out.”
Later that year, Smith started working for Hackensack News Company, a newspaper distributor/wholesaler. After a series of buyouts and takeovers, The New York Times became his employer.
He worked the night shift and began searching for a way to get into coaching high school sports. In the 1987-1988 school year, Smith became an Assistant Coach for the Tuxedo girls’ basketball team.
At about the same time, Smith began playing fastpitch softball in Warwick. He quickly became hooked on the sport.
Smith went on to play in the Middletown City League. He also became an MVP/All Star in both Warwick and Middletown and played against some fastpitch legends, including pitchers Greg Hamilton, Bob Doty and Billy Stokes.
“I also got to play against my former gym teacher at Burke high school Dick O’Neill, who is a coaching legend in both Orange and Sullivan counties,” Smith said of O’Neill, the longtime coach of the Monticello Central School varsity boys’ basketball team.
In 1990, Smith tried out for a traveling fastpitch squad called Middletown OTB. He said that the squad had many local players on the roster, but used pitchers from Canada.
“I was thinking why aren't more local pitchers doing this,” Smith commented. “I figured out quickly after striking out 19 times in a row my first year, I don’t even recall fouling off many pitches, but I knew one day I would catch up, and I did.”
“Playing on this team was great,” he added. “We traveled all over the U.S. and Eastern Canada, because that’s where the competition was. We’d play anywhere from 60 to 80 games a year, and usually competed in the International Softball Congress (ISC) World Tournament, the ASA National Fastpitch Tournament, and many other prestigious fastpitch tournaments in the U.S. and Canada.”
Smith said he feels very fortunate to have played softball across the U.S. and in several other countries, including Argentina and Mexico. But his favorite place to play was the Dominican Republic.
He was a member of a New York team now owned by a construction company from upstate that was the first American fastpitch softball team to travel to the Dominican Republic. Smith and his teammates played against the Dominican Republic Olympic team and the country became a spring training place for the New York team every year.
“We would play there from five to 12 days, and were treated like kings,” Smith said. “The Dominican people are happy and humble, and one of my instant thoughts on the first trip was, ‘Wow, they have nothing and look how happy they are, boy, do we
Americans take things for granted.’ I remember seeing kids playing ball using cardboard as a mitt, or a rag, but they were playing, and it was neat to watch!”
Touched by the children’s love of the game despite not having proper softball equipment, Smith left everything behind, except the clothes on his back, and his favorite, old broken in mitt.
By the way, he still has that mitt, which has the signature of the mayor in Fargo, North Dakota, as well as the governor of North Dakota, both of whom signed it after throwing out the first pitch of the 2004 World Tournament in Fargo.
Smith’s softball experience also included an appearance in a promotional video the ISC made a few years ago. He can be seen for a few seconds as he explains why he enjoys fastpitch softball more than baseball.
After an 18-year career, Smith slowed down in 2004. He played in a limited amount of tournaments when he had time off from his job at a local summer camp.
Smith, who won a few Section IX titles as an assistant basketball coach at Tuxedo High School, a section title as girls’ soccer coach at Tuxedo, and section title while coaching softball in Chester in 2004, said he enjoys working with kids. Last year, he took a buyout from my job at The New York Times and retired. Although he receives a monthly pension, he still needs to work. He has been employed at a camp in Beach Lake, Pa. and hopes to finally get on the substitute teacher list at Sullivan West Central School.
One of the messages he wants to spread about the sport of fastpitch softball is that it is a great game for young men to get involved in after their high school and/or college baseball careers have ended.
“This game has been so good to me, I want to give back,” Smith said. “There are outlets for young men to play in a fastpitch venue. I’m still a commissioner for the ISC, with the Northeast corridor as my territory, and would like to turn on some younger guys to the game, if they are interested. I would be willing to introduce any young man from the area to the greatest, fastest, most athletic game on the planet.”
All of Smith’s contact information can be found under the “personnel” page on the ISC Web site, which is www.iscfastpitch.com.