Lessons go beyond the diamond at Aaron Invitational

Reggie Smith reflects how meeting Jackie encouraged him to share experiences throughout career

July 22nd, 2022

VERO BEACH, Fla. -- Former 17-year Major League Baseball veteran Reggie Smith finds himself in a unique situation this week: Teaching baseball at a facility named after his childhood hero.

On Friday’s second day of the Hank Aaron Invitational, Smith traveled around the Jackie Robinson Training Complex, observing players as they hit in the cages, participated in drills and played in games in the first week of the amateur development camp.

As part of the youth/diversity initiative set up by MLB and the MLB Players Association, Smith and the rest of the impressive coaching staff brought their lengthy baseball careers and vast knowledge to a group of roughly 100 players, all part of the Class of 2025.

But the former Los Angeles Dodger outfielder, who played for the club from 1976 to 1981, can’t help but focus on the namesake of the state-of-the-art venue on the Treasure Coast and the impact Robinson made on the game.

And on the 77-year-old Smith himself.

Smith is the only player at the JRTC this week who had an encounter with the barrier-breaking multisport superstar whose name and legendary No. 42 adorn the facility.

In what is likely one of the most forgotten, star-studded games in baseball history, the league played an exhibition contest at Dodger Stadium on March 28, 1970. The game commemorated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated two years prior, with proceeds from the game going to the civil rights causes he championed.

Twenty-three current and future Hall of Famers played in it -- “The Game of the Century,” Smith said -- in front of just 31,694 fans with limited coverage available only on local networks.

The coaches and players reflected the all-time legends and current superstars of the sport. Among the greats were Aaron, Joe DiMaggio, Roberto Clemente, Bob Gibson, Pete Rose, Satchel Paige, Larry Doby and Willie Mays.

Famed Dodgers Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Don Newcombe, Maury Wills and Roy Campanella donned uniforms, too. Before the game, Robinson met with the players.

“He was my hero,” said Smith, a seven-time All-Star during stints with Boston, St. Louis, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

After boarding a plane afterward to fly back for a season-opening series between the Red Sox and Yankees in New York, Smith looked up and saw Robinson walking down the aisle toward him.

“I’m sitting in an aisle seat,” Smith said, “and he’s coming down the aisle. He’s getting closer and closer then goes into the aisle [seat] right across from me. I’m thinking, ‘Jackie’s in the aisle seat next to me. Wow.’ I finally get up enough courage to speak to him. I said, ‘Hi, Mr. Robinson, it’s Reggie Smith.’

“He said, ‘I know who you are. I like what you stand for.’”

Those words sank in for Smith during the rare experience of meeting someone he idolized.

“That was special. Here’s a guy who’s my hero, and I’m like a little kid. I can understand how kids are a little bit shy to meet with their baseball hero. That was me -- and I was established in big league baseball at that time,” the Los Angeles native said.

Robinson also told Smith to “keep it up,” and Smith -- a fierce, outspoken competitor -- did just that on the field and in the clubhouse.

In a stellar career played within three decades, Smith bashed 314 home runs, notched 1,092 RBIs and hit .287. He was runner-up for Rookie of the Year in 1967 to Rod Carew, and he won a Gold Glove in 1968.

Smith also rarely bit his tongue, opting instead to speak his mind like Robinson did if issues arose, and to strive for equality on the diamond and in the clubhouse.

“He was one of the guys who showed us younger guys the way,” said Dodger teammate Mike Scioscia while poring over the roster of a late-morning game from a strategic position beyond the first-base dugout.

A fellow HAI instructor of Smith’s, Scioscia was part of a young crew who came up and helped the Dodgers overcome the nemesis that was the New York Yankees, finally beating the American League club in the 1981 World Series after falling short in 1977 and ‘78.

“If we did something and we needed to clean it up and play better, [Smith and the veterans] let us know,” said Scioscia, then a 21-year-old catcher. “Reggie was great. Looking back on it now, I can’t imagine coming up in a better environment.”

As one of many former players returning to the JRTC to teach during the first week of the HAI, Smith realizes the importance of passing along his knowledge of the game to the camp’s youth, who have come from all over the country to learn under some of baseball’s stars.

“We earned our way,” Smith said of the coaches in camp who are imparting their experiences to the group, “and maybe in 30 years, you guys will have the chance to give back and share the information that you’ve learned along the way.

“We’re not only sharing baseball knowledge, we’re sharing life lessons with them. Baseball is a microcosm of life. You’re learning to be a good citizen and interact with people from different places. And working together and trusting your judgment.

“All of these are things you have to do in life.”