HOUSTON — Last week in San Diego, Dave Smith paraded in the Astro clubhouse in his usual baseball attire--socks, stirrups, pants, surfing T-shirt.
A friend stopped by to ask, "Well . . . how was it?"
"Flat," Smith said, "real flat. No swell in sight."
He had been up at the crack of dawn that morning--praying for waves--but he had cursed the surf. There he was, back in his hometown, back at the beach, and he had to catch rays instead of waves. In Houston, he had counted the days until he got there. His right arm--the one he pitches with--had been sore recently, and he was sure that surfing would be the best therapy. It relaxes him. So what if his contract says, "NO SURFING!"? What do the Astros know about surfing, anyway?
But the waves, damn it, the waves were flat.
He shrugged it off and went out to the bullpen that night. He pitched his usual one inning and his forkball was far from flat. He earned his 30th save, breaking the Houston club record, and moved his team one step closer to a Western Division title. He has given up only three runs since July 20 (all in one game), and he has 14 saves and a 2-1 record in his last 18 games, so he figures he can surf if he damn well pleases.
Meanwhile, Charlie Kerfeld--one of Smith's teammates in the bullpen--strolled by that night wearing a "Jetson's" T-shirt. Kerfeld is sort of the "old Smith." Back in the '70s, Dave Smith was a rowdy surfer boy who drove a gnarly van, busted up hotel rooms and wore a wet bathing suit everywhere--especially to baseball practice. Kerfeld, 22, is following in Smith's footsteps, though Kerfeld would never surf because no one would really want to see his love handles in a bathing suit.
But Kerfeld is rowdy. Apparently he has told people that he better settle down and get married before "my liver bursts." He bought a "Jetson's" T-shirt late last year and wore it under his game jersey. For the next 25 innings he pitched, he didn't allow an earned run. So he figured the shirt was the difference.
"I don't go anywhere without George, Jane, Judy and Elroy," Kerfeld proclaimed. And he bought T-shirts for most everybody on the team--for good luck, he says.
"I got yuppie T-shirts for the PR staff. I got a 'Gumby' T-shirt for (pitcher) Jim Deshaies. And 'Jetson's' T-shirts for a lot of guys," he said. "I've bought guys 'Buckwheat' T-shirts and 'Alfalfa' T-shirts and 'Scooby Doo' T-shirts. Mostly cartoon characters. Like I said, it's for good luck."
The mystery is why he hasn't bought a shirt for Dave Smith.
Growing up in Del Mar, Smith hardly ever wore a shirt. He lived only 20 minutes from the beach and was a regular there by the time he was in the sixth grade. He learned to surf.
He played baseball, too, but he liked the cool waves better.
"I'd get up early," he said, "and I'd go to the beach. And then I'd go to school (Poway High) and then I'd go to the beach and then I'd go to (baseball) practice."
His high school coach at the time, Danny Christ, didn't usually mind if Smith was late for practice.
"Well," Smith said, "it depended on how the waves were. If the waves were really good, it was OK to be late."
That's because Christ surfed, too. Christ was one of them. His players had long hair; so did he. They fought their opponents; he didn't mind. They partied; he didn't mind.
"Yeah, he (Christ) surfed," Smith said. "Matter of fact, the last time we (the Astros) were in town, I saw where his son had won a surfing contest. Made me feel old."
When Smith was pitching on the junior varsity team as a sophomore, one of the varsity guys got hurt, and Christ needed an emergency replacement for a playoff game. Smith--who still liked surfing better--was thrown in there and he won.
Meanwhile, the school wasn't too proud of the team.
"Well, our hair was a problem then," Smith said. "We all had long hair. He (Christ) got fired over that. Plus, our image as a club wasn't good. We got into a lot of fights. A pretty crazy bunch of guys. A rowdy team. And Danny liked that image, and he didn't do anything to stop it. But we won. . . ."
They hired Joe Krainock to replace Christ, and Krainock ordered them to the barber shop. The team rebelled and fell into fourth place. Smith continued to work more on surfing than pitching.
But San Diego State baseball Coach Jim Dietz saw Smith pitch as a senior and recruited him.
"I guess I showed him something," Smith said. "Of course, by then I'd gotten my hair cut."
Dietz was pulling out his own hair soon after Smith got there.
"Well, I was always late (for practice)," Smith said. "I'd show up with a surfboard on top of my van and I'd be wearing a wet bathing suit, you know. And I'd stroll into the ballpark. I guess that ticked him off a little bit."
One of Smith's friends was Armen Keteyian, an infielder whose ambition was to work in the newspaper business. Keteyian now investigates stories for Sports Illustrated, but he and Smith used to investigate the seedy side of San Diego in the old days.