HOUSTON -- The mile markers raced past the outside of the windows, one after the other. The yellow lines disappeared into the horizon in the rearview mirror. The road seemed to go on forever, stretching endlessly towards Texas. Just keep on going.
As he sped down Interstate 40 out of Cincinnati, making his way through Nashville towards Memphis, and then on to Little Rock, Astros pitcher Joe Smith's mind was racing as well. Maybe he should turn around and go home? His teammates and his career waited on him in Houston; his ailing mother was back in Ohio with his family.
The Astros were about to ramp up training in early July after the outbreak of the coronavirus had abruptly shut down Spring Training in March, sending everyone back home with no idea what the future held. Smith and his wife, Allie LaForce, were headed to Minute Maid Park to prepare for the start of the season, but their thoughts were mostly with family back home, where Smith's mother was battling the final stages of Huntington's disease.
Lee Smith hadn't been eating for a while but had suddenly regained her appetite and had improved enough to make Smith feel somewhat comfortable about going to Houston and joining the Astros for the shortened 2020 season. Still, the drive to Houston was gut-wrenching.
The decision of whether to play or sit out the 2020 season didn't get easier as the miles piled up. Smith pulled over more than a few times to talk about it with Allie before deciding to keep going. Not even a dinner at the Nashville home of Smith's agent and former youth coach, Kris Glazier, was enough to clear his head.
"There's only so much he could do for his mother," Glazier said. "He still wanted to be there for his teammates. I know on that drive, when he left here and headed to Houston, we talked a couple of times and I know he stopped off on the side of the road and had conversations with Allie along the way and thought about turning it around. He felt at the time he wanted to try to stick it out and see if it made any difference when he got to Houston."
Smith was glued to his phone while talking to teammates, including Michael Brantley, and friends and family members while cutting a path south towards Texas. What was supposed to be a 16-hour drive turned into 20 hours of indecision. He arrived in Houston and went through the COVID-19 intake process at Minute Maid Park. Smith stayed with teammate Alex Bregman for four days and was energized about playing. He threw in the bullpen to catcher Martín Maldonado. Smith was ready to go physically, but his mind -- and his heart -- were back in Ohio.
"One thing we both agreed on was family first, but also get to Houston," LaForce said. "Just get there and see your teammates face to face. He was calling everyone he possibly knew -- [manager] Dusty Baker and all of his teammates and his agent. He was on the phone non-stop. When you break it all down and who's affected by this one decision, it's hundreds of people. He just had to do the right thing by everybody."
Before the Astros Summer Camp training session got underway in early July, Smith made a decision for which he has no regrets. He needed to return to Ohio to be with his mother and sit out the 2020 season. That meant forfeiting his $4 million salary, but money was secondary. Smith and LaForce drove back to Ohio and the Astros put him on the restricted list before the season started. Baseball would have to wait.
"It just didn't feel right," Smith said. "I couldn't get my mind to where it needed to be."
Smith's mother died on Aug. 6 at age 61 of Huntington's disease, a neurological disorder with no cure. Lee inherited it from her mother, who died from it in 2012. The disease causes the progressive breakdown of nerve cells in the brain. Smith's mother was diagnosed nine years ago, and in '17 went into a nursing home at 58 years old.
"I think it was the right decision for that time -- and I still think it was the right decision," Smith said six months after his mother's death. "But it was tough, man, you know, watching everybody out there. Obviously, when they rolled into the postseason and seeing that, you want nothing but to be out there, but I think just given where we were at -- and when I say 'we,' I mean our family at that time -- and everything that was going on, it was the right thing to do. Obviously, I wish I could have played."
The coronavirus limited how much Smith was able to see his mother in her final months. Visitors aren't allowed inside the Cincinnati-area assisted-living facility where Lee was residing, so the family had to settle for talks on the phone and seeing her through the window. Near the end of his mother's life, though, those rules were eschewed. Smith was able to hold her hand and tell her that he loved her.
A lot of Smith's emotions when it came to his mother stemmed from the guilt of not being there as much as he wanted in the final few years of her life because of his career, from not being there as much for his dad, Mike Smith. He traveled for work, so it was often Lee taking Joe and his sister, Megan, to games when they were kids.
"His sister and her family, they even moved all the way across the country back home to be there," LaForce said. "He was able to, I think, overcome that guilt by being by her side those last couple of days and being there for his dad and holding her hand and getting to say what he needed to say and getting closer to her before she went.
"The peace that came from that was much greater than any guilt he was feeling from watching the team in the playoffs. But, of course, he wanted to be there with them on the field."
Lee Smith's final wishes were to have her ashes scattered in Lake Erie near Cleveland. In the following weeks, life started getting back to normal for Smith, at least as much as it could. He watched the Astros on television every night and texted some of his teammates occasionally as they shook off a 29-31 regular season and came within a win of returning to the World Series. The last thing Smith wanted to do, though, was bother them too much.
"Watching them get into the playoffs, that light switch turned on and they're like, 'All right, let's go,'" Smith said. "It was awesome to see. With everything that came out of the 2017 season [in the fallout from the sign-stealing scandal] and those guys, they're a great group. It was good to see them go out there and compete daily that well."
Smith briefly thought about a possible return for the playoffs but decided against it. Complicating matters was his own health status. There's a 50-50 chance he could inherit Huntington's disease from his mother, and he's opted not to get tested. How would exposure to COVID affect him? No one knows.
"We were living in a lot of unknowns and we still are as to if Joe would catch COVID, how would that impact the possibility of him having this disease? Would it accelerate the symptoms? Would it bring the symptoms to light?" Glazier said. "There were a lot of questions, but at the end of the day, and as hard as it was, he made that decision to turn back around and forgo the season and be there to support the family and be there by his mom's side as she succumbed to Huntington's disease."
Fast-forward to late January 2021. The country is still in the grips of the coronavirus pandemic, but Spring Training is set to begin on time. That means first workouts for Astros pitchers and catchers are Feb. 18. Smith and LaForce made the drive from Ohio to West Palm Beach, Fla., at the end of the January, eager to escape the Midwest cold and prepare for his return to the mound.
Smith hasn't pitched in a game since throwing 1 1/3 frames in a Grapefruit League game on March 9, 2020, and his last meaningful outing was in Game 7 of the '19 World Series -- a gut-wrenching loss to the Nationals in which he gave up two runs in one-third of an inning. If there was ever a time for a fresh start, this is it.
"I started working out In October, and I started throwing earlier in November," Smith said. "I've been off the mound a few times, you know, just trying to try to get back in the rhythm of things a little bit earlier, just with missing that much time. I feel good."
Smith has been working out the past couple of weeks with some other big leaguers at Cressey Sports Performance in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. According to the new protocols agreed upon this week by Major League Baseball and the Players Association, players must quarantine for five days before reporting to camp. Risks are involved, but Smith plans to immerse himself in the game.
"It's so good to see him in his element," LaForce said. "A break is just refreshing physically and mentally, no matter how you look at it. Him wanting to get down there early and make sure he got his body right and mind right was super motivating, and he's excited to start the season. He missed it, for sure. A little time off may have squeezed a couple of more years out of him potentially. We'll see, I guess. He's really excited."
The return of Smith is tantamount to a free-agent acquisition by the Astros, who took steps to bolster their bullpen by signing Pedro Báez and Ryne Stanek and have targeted free agent closer Trevor Rosenthal. Smith, 36, is baseball's active leader in games pitched with 782 appearances for six teams in his 13-year career. The side-armer posted a 1.80 ERA in 28 games in 2019.
"Getting Joe back kind of calms that heartbeat a little bit in the bullpen," Glazier said.
The battle against Huntington's disease continues, even after Lee Smith's passing. A few years ago, Smith and LaForce founded HelpCureHD.org, which aims to help improve the quality of life for those affected by the disease by contributing financial, emotional and mental support while trying to find a cure.
The foundation is paying for families in need to use in vitro fertilization along with genetic testing that will allow only healthy embryos to be implanted. This would guarantee their child would be HD-free, stopping the disease from spreading down generations. The process can cost as much as $30,000 to $40,000 per attempt. LaForce said three HD-free babies have been born and more are on the way.
"We were pretty happy overall," she said.
Smith isn't sure if he'll play beyond 2021. He missed the first half of the '19 season with a left Achilles injury and then sat out all of last year. That means his arm is rested entering this season. He's as focused as he's been in years, even if he's living with a void in his heart.
"I'm excited to get back out there," Smith said. "I feel good, and as long as I feel good, I usually end up playing all right. So I don't mind flipping a baseball. I'll act like a kid for a little while longer. I'm just excited to get to camp to see where we're at and build off that. Just keep on going."