BOSTON -- Wheels mean steals for Mallex Smith.
That's why the Rays speedster works to keep his wheels in working order by spending his offseason with the University of Florida's track team.
Smith has always been fast, swiping bases at every level of baseball -- including 32 steals in 158 career big league games. But growing up in Tallahassee, Fla., he never participated in track, even though the sport ranked high in his family since his two sisters and his mother were all track athletes. His mother, who coached track, used to show up during lunchtime at Smith's high school and take him through mini workouts to help his speed. After signing with the Braves in 2012, he began working out with the Gators' track team under the watchful eye of head coach Mike Holloway, a longtime family friend. Smith has worked out with the team every offseason since.
"When I got with [Holloway], we started breaking down my mechanics and really focusing in on just getting my turnover, going a little quicker," Smith said. "I had to get off of my heels. When your heel hits the ground, your foot is on the ground too long. And I learned how to use my arms.
"Even sometimes now, I flail my arms too much. But just being able to efficiently pump my arms to be able to get my legs to do less work and maintain a little more energy and stamina while I'm running. Those are two key things off the bat I had to work on, just kind of keeping my mind mentally."
Holloway likes having Smith around, and he said the athletes on his team do as well.
"Mallex is a great young man," Holloway said. "He brings a lot of energy and passion. The thing I like about having him around is he challenges everybody to work as hard as he does.
"We talk about having a championship environment here. I don't want anybody around here who subtracts from that environment, and he doesn't. He adds to it. Obviously, you've got a guy here who is a Major League Baseball player. And there are thoughts and feelings he has and things he's gone through that he can impart wisdom on my younger athletes to help them get through what they're going through."
Smith enjoys spending the offseason with the tracksters.
"I like to have fun," Smith said. "And I think I bring a little different dimension. When I come in, it's their offseason, too. We have fun.
"They get to laugh at my form. They pick on me about things. I let them know I'm a baseball player. I don't run track, I'm just trying to get a little faster for my sport. That still doesn't keep them from picking on me."
Along the way, Smith has gotten to know some of track's big-time athletes like Christian Taylor, Chantae McMillan, Demetrious Pinder, and Tony McQuay to name a few.
While what Smith does on the track with the team is important, what he does off the track -- emulating what the track athletes do at the training table and in the weight room -- might be even more beneficial.
"Sprinters take care of their bodies," Smith said. "A lot of fruits. They eat organic. Very strategic, because they have to keep their weight down. They just want to put good things in their body. I know how they have to prepare and I know it's a very healthy lifestyle. They're not eating past a certain time at night."
Smith still believes if a person is fast, he is fast. However ...
"You can't necessarily teach someone to be faster," Smith said. "What you can do is clean up your mechanics and move more fluently. If you work on moving more efficiently and train at a high speed, eventually you should gain a step or two. I know I feel like I have."
Smith is a track fan, and likes to watch the athletes he trains with whenever he can.
"In 2016, I was watching the Olympics and cheering on the girls and guys," Smith said. "It was fun because I'd trained with some of them, and there they were, competing at the highest level."
Holloway said Smith is part of the Florida track family, and he added that Smith received the ultimate compliment from his peers.
"As he started to get better and his technique began to improve, you could hear guys and girls on the team say, 'Whoa, Mallex is starting to look like a track guy,'" Holloway said.