When you think of the lifestyle of a professional baseball player, you think of big houses and Olympic-sized swimming pools. You rarely think of those players building pools in someone’s backyard. Reds pitcher Josh Smith has had to do just that to make ends meet as he chases his big league dream.
Players taken in the early rounds of the draft typically get sizable signing bonuses and don’t have to moonlight at a second job. Smith’s journey to the minors, however, was decidedly different.
The right-hander cut his teeth at Lipscomb University as the No. 2 pitcher in the rotation next to ace Rex Brothers. Brothers, the Friday night pitcher, would go out and throw in front of scores of major league scouts. By Saturday, when Smith would take the mound, the scouts were off to check out their next prospect. Smith may not have had the same upside as Brothers, but he was a very strong pitcher in his own right and deserved far more attention from scouts, in the estimation of agent Alex Esteban. Brothers became a first round selection of the Rockies while Smith wound being selected in the 21st round by Cincinnati in 2010. Brothers got a signing bonus just shy of seven figures upon signing his deal. Smith got roughly $1K.
Bonuses for later round picks are extremely low and the minors don’t pay very well from year-to-year either. Smith, who earns less than $10K per year in salary, quickly figured out that he needed to take on a full-time job in the offseason. Longtime pitching coach Tracy Valentine, a former minor leaguer himself, also ran a pool construction business and had a need for a physically strong employee who could haul bulky, cumbersome bags of cement from the truck to backyards. That position, while greatly appreciated by the pitcher, didn’t give Smith the hours or pay that he needed to make ends meet.
“I don’t need side cash,” Smith told Valentine. “I need a job.”
With that, Smith began actually building the pools and earning a bit more cash. To line his pockets further, Smith also helped coach some of Valentine’s pupils, including Diamondbacks 2014 first-round choice Touki Toussaint.
“He came to us when he was like 14 or 15 and I was like, ‘Who is this kid?,‘” Smith said. “Back then he was a shortstop and I asked him if he ever thought about pitching and he said no. I told him, if you ever change your mind, let me know. I told him that he needed to be a pitcher because he had a cannon.”
Smith still helps to guide young arms and build pools in the offseason, even though he has reached Triple-A and is knocking on the door of the Reds’ major league roster. His particular offseason job might be unique, but it’s a lifestyle that is not at all uncommon for minor leaguers, Smith says.
“My old college teammate Caleb Joseph is in the bigs now with the Orioles, but when he was in the minors, he would come home and work at the local country club as a caddy and a waiter. Some guys do construction, some work in restaurants. Everyone does what they need to do in the offseason to make ends meet,” Smith explained.
In April, it became evident that Smith’s hard work both on and off the field was paying off as the Reds called him up to the majors.
“My manager, Delino DeShields, called me and said, ‘Pack your stuff, you’re meeting the Reds in Chicago.’ I didn’t believe him, but he told me he’d never pull a joke like that and that he wished he could see my face when I heard the news,” Smith said. “I was actually playing Call Of Duty with a bunch of my Louisville teammates and I told them on the headsets that I had to go and get myself packed.”
“The funny thing is,” Esteban added. “He was playing with like 100 other teenagers who had no idea what any of them were talking about.”
When Smith landed in Chicago, Esteban was there to pick him up from the airport and drive him to meet the team. The right-hander had a million things going through his mind on his way to the hotel. What’s it going to be like to pitch in a big league game? How will I adjust to playing in front of tens of thousands of people in the stands? But, there was one pressing concern that stood out above the others.
“I was wondering,” Smith said to Esteban. “Do you think they’ll put me in the video game?”
Unfortunately, Smith didn’t make it into the video game or the actual game during that stint. The Reds sent Smith back down to the minors after the three-game set in Chicago without having thrown a pitch. Still, the experience was a milestone for the starter and he knows that he’ll get another opportunity when the Reds are in need of a long reliever or spot starter. Once he gets to the majors and sticks on the roster, he could wind up with a big swimming pool to call his own.