'That wasn't just my hit': Smith-Njigba indebted to inner circle

July 4th, 2022

's first big league plate appearance was a trial by fire.

His name was called with two outs in the ninth inning on June 14. He faced an established closer in , who got ahead in the count, 1-2. When Gallegos left a fastball in the middle of the zone, Smith-Njigba smacked an opposite-field double for his first Major League hit. He stoically cruised into second, but cheers from family and friends echoed throughout the lower bowl. The moment wasn’t just Smith-Njigba's; it was for those who made that moment possible.

“That wasn’t just my hit,” the young outfielder later said with a smile. “It’s everyone’s hit that’s [been] on my side.”

The list of those whom Smith-Njigba credits for helping him reach the Majors is extensive. High on it are Greg Colbrunn and Phil Plantier, hitting coaches from Smith-Njigba's time in the Yankees' system.

“They saw me at my lowest and they brought me back up,” Smith-Njigba said.

Selected in the fourth round out of Rockwall-Heath High School in Texas by the Yankees in the 2017 Draft, Smith-Njigba had entered his second professional season feeling like, in his words, "the man."

In 57 Gulf Coast League games during his debut season, he had posted a .852 OPS with five homers and five stolen bases. He expected to break Spring Training with High-A Charleston, but was instead assigned to Single-A Staten Island.

His time with Staten Island was abysmal. He hit .191. His strikeout rate skyrocketed. Off the field, Smith-Njigba had trouble adjusting to New York. He had his first taste of adversity.

When he was promoted to Charleston the following year, he leaned on the guidance provided by Colbrunn and Plantier, as well as his manager, Julio Mosquera.

“They really mentored me in this game, and that’s what you need because this game is hard to do by yourself,” Smith-Njigba said.

Smith-Njigba describes Colbrunn, then the Charleston hitting coach, as “one of the dudes who saved my career.” He credits Colbrunn with teaching him his swing and his approach. Colbrunn deflects the praise, emphasizing that Smith-Njigba's ability was always there; unlocking it was a matter of accountability and work ethic.

Smith-Njigba remembers two particular pieces of advice that Colbrunn provided:

  1. Don't be an idiot (i.e. don’t deviate from the approach that works)
  2. Think left-center

Fittingly, Smith-Njigba's first MLB hit was to left-center.

With Colbrunn, Plantier and Mosquera, among others, in his corner, Smith-Njigba orchestrated an outstanding all-around season. In 2019, he hit .307 with 11 home runs and 16 steals. Smith-Njigba, who was traded to the Yankees along with several prospects prior to the 2021 season for , had blossomed.

“What he brought to the table in the year he had,” Colburn said, “was probably one of the better years I’ve had after nine, 10 years coaching in the South Atlantic League.”

That Smith-Njigba stayed the course should come as no surprise. Roughly two decades earlier, his parents had traversed their own arduous path.

His mother, Jami, and father, Maada, were teenagers when they discovered they’d be having a child. Jami was a high school junior; Maada was a college freshman at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, on a football scholarship.

For Jami, the pregnancy was taxing. She was placed on bedrest, spending most of her time in the dark due to migraines. She lay in a bathtub every night to ease the pain. The only time she left the house was for medical visits.

Around the pregnancy’s halfway point, sonograms revealed that there was excess water near the fetus’ brain. The fear was that the water would absorb, resulting in the child being born with dwarfism.

“I really was just terrified," Jami said. “I was just scared of what was happening.”

On April 30, 1999, Jami and her mother dashed to Medical City in Dallas. This was the day. Jami repeatedly paged Maada, who was three hours away at school in Nacogdoches. Of all days, Maada left his pager in his room while taking a final exam. Upon learning the news, Maada alerted close friend Chad Harrison, who had promised to drive Maada to the hospital when the day came. The two arrived with only hours to spare.

Due to lingering concerns for Canaan's health, neither Jami nor Maada had the chance to hold Canaan before he was taken away. But following about four days of testing, Canaan was given a clean bill of health.

Following the pregnancy, Jami provided herself with time to heal. In time, Jami and Maada had to figure out how their lives would look. Jami had to finish high school. Maada had college. If Jami remained home, she and Canaan would be three hours away from Maada.

That summer, Jami and Maada met a social worker while viewing Nacogdoches High School, located in the same city as Maada’s college. The high school had a program for teenage mothers called Partners in Parenting. The program would allow Jami to accelerate through school and the family to live together. Jami graduated in December 1999, then enrolled at Stephen F. Austin.

“It made me aware of how important and how special timing is,” Jami said.

Jami and Maada enjoyed being student-parents -- both described it as one of the best times of their lives. But life was a grind. They required food stamps. They lived in student housing. They didn’t own a car. Yet, they found a way, raising not just Canaan, but his younger brother, Jaxon.

“I’m thankful to God that we had the tenacity to make it through those times,” Maada said. “I don’t minimize those times. It really made us who we are. At the time, it was, ‘How can we get through this?’ And we made it.”

Canaan and Jaxon, a standout receiver at Ohio State, are astutely aware of the sacrifices their parents made. They plan to return the favor.

“I know when me and my brother get to where we need to get to, they're going to be taken care of,” Canaan said. “They got us on the front end; we got them on the back end.”

The lessons that Smith-Njigba has learned from his parents and his coaches will be invaluable as he navigates his latest challenge.

Three games into his career, Smith-Njigba sustained a wrist injury that will set him back several weeks. The road to recovery and subsequently establishing himself won’t be easy. But Smith-Njigba knows that on this journey, he’ll have plenty of supporters alongside, every step of the way.