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From Rochester, N.Y., Smith Can See the Lights of Baltimore : Baseball: Oriole farmhand is knocking at the door for opportunity to play with big-league club.

July 01, 1993|GARY KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ARCADIA — His skills and appearance are anything but flashy and his name is as generic as they come.

Mark Smith has neither the gracefulness of Mike Devereaux, the Beverly Hills 90210 sideburns of Brady Anderson, the speed of Jeffrey Hammonds nor the baseball lineage of Damon Buford, all of whom have played outfield for the Baltimore Orioles this season.

But Smith will likely play in the major leagues, if not this season, then next. If not for the Baltimore Orioles, who selected him out of USC in the first round of the 1991 draft, then another team in need of a quietly productive .300 hitter.

"If I do well and continue to progress, I'll find myself in the lineup somewhere," said Smith, an Arcadia High graduate who is playing for the Orioles' Rochester (N.Y.) affiliate in the triple-A International League. "I think my chances are still good with the Orioles. They tell me I'm progressing the way they want me to.

"But nothing is for sure in this game. You can't find many guys that stay with one organization their whole career."

Smith, 23, is in his first season at the triple-A level. He has enjoyed sustained stretches of excellence during his baseball career, but all pale compared to his performance during May.

The 6-foot-3, 205-pound Smith was named the batter of the month by the Orioles' organization after he hit .390. He hit safely in 20 consecutive games between May 3 and May 23 and was 40 for 86 (.465) with seven doubles, four home runs and 21 runs batted in.

Smith struggled through June and recently returned from a four-game absence because of a foot injury. He is batting .300, which ranks him ninth in the league, and has four homers and 37 RBIs.

"I'm a player that can be consistent for a long time if I'm feeling good," Smith said. "I'm ready to go on another streak like that one in May."

Whether that will be enough to earn a promotion in Baltimore this season is uncertain. The Orioles are stockpiled in the outfield. Buford, the son of former Oriole outfielder Don Buford, was promoted from Rochester earlier this season because the major league team was in need of a player with speed to replace the injured Devereaux. Hammonds, the club's top pick in 1992 out of Stanford, was promoted last week.

Smith said he does not feel he was passed up.

"I'm happy with my progress," said Smith, who batted .288 with a league-leading 32 doubles for Hagerstown (Md.) in the double-A Eastern League last season. "I wouldn't mind a full year in triple-A just to get the at-bats and the experiences.

"I'm learning something every day."

Smith's most unforgettable lesson in professional baseball came last season at Hagerstown. It had nothing to do with his on-field performance, but spoke volumes about the power and reach of the media.

Smith, speaking to a reporter, made some unflattering remarks about the city of Hagerstown, the team's home stadium and some of the city's women.

Smith said his remarks were made in jest and that he did not realize that he was being quoted for the record. Nevertheless, his comments were picked up by the Hagerstown paper and ran in a story that was bannered across the top of the front page. Several national media outlets also ran stories.

"It was a nightmare, but it was a good lesson to learn, especially while you're in the minors and not in the big leagues," Smith said. "I know now that you can't joke around like that without it coming back to haunt you.

"I don't even play in that league anymore and I still hear wisecracks from fans when I'm in the on-deck circle."

Smith is aware that the Orioles and other organizations are watching his development, especially his power production. He knows the long ball is cause for attention--and promotion.

Smith said he is on his way to gaining both.

"They say most guys reach their peak as hitters from 27 to 32 (years of age)," Smith said. "I'm getting stronger and trying to get everything together so I can maximize everything when I get to that point.

"When I connect, I can hit is as far as anyone. Right now, I'm just concerned with becoming a good hitter."

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