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Out-of-Town Muscle

Transfer Robert Smith Gives Northridge a Powerful Bat in the Lineup

April 06, 2001|VINCE KOWALICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NORTHRIDGE — Robert Smith's handshake is a lot like his swing--firm, strong, a fine how-do-you-do. Even painful to some.

Kind of like his baserunning.

Smith and first baseman Tim Maghan of Cal State Sacramento recently became acquainted when the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Smith barreled into the 6-5, 225-pound Maghan, who was trying to catch Smith's pop-up.

Benches cleared momentarily and Sacramento Coach John Smith wound up being ejected. But the matter otherwise was peacefully resolved.

"Sometimes on the baseball field, guys end up in the same spot at the same time," Northridge Coach Mike Batesole said.

Smith shrugs his massive shoulders and smiles about the incident.

A senior third baseman, Smith recently has taken to the role of designated hitter. Of course, after logging 13 at-bats last season at Oklahoma State, he is willing to run through walls to play.

"I don't care where I play, as long as I'm in the lineup," Smith said. "I'll play left field if they want me to. As long as I get my at-bats."

Smith came to Northridge in search of a place to display his strength, and he has found it.

The transfer from Oklahoma State and former All-American at Fresno City College provides power for one of the Matadors' most potent lineups in recent seasons.

Among the team's burliest players, Smith cuts an imposing figure with his shaved head and scruffy goatee, resembling Jesse Ventura more than Mark McGwire.

"The real Matadome," a teammate recently cracked as Smith posed for a photograph.

Northridge (21-11) plays at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (18-11) today in the first of a three-game Big West Conference series.

Smith, batting .386 with eight home runs and 30 runs batted in, probably will bat fourth and be the designated hitter.

He has started his share of games at third base, but his huge hands are more impressive handling a bat than wearing a glove.

Smith ranks among the top 10 in the Big West in several categories, including fifth in home runs and slugging percentage (.675). He ranks ninth in the conference with 44 hits, including nine doubles.

Speed?

Smith has one stolen base and no triples.

No matter. Power is his game and the reason for his success, Smith said.

An avid weightlifter, Smith routinely heads to the gym after practice. During the off-season he lifts seven days a week, and not just to maintain tone.

"I do everything, kind of like the bodybuilder style," he said. "A lot of power movement--squats and cleans and stuff like that.

"I lift year-round. I'm a big believer in it. Being strong has helped me a lot. I don't have to get the whole barrel on the ball to get it to go somewhere. You don't have to get all of it with two strikes to get it into the outfield for a base hit. When you're stronger, you don't have to get all of it to get it out."

Although capable of tape-measure shots, Smith's best attribute might be his hand speed and skill.

"When you watch Robert, you can see right away that he has great hands," Batesole said. "All guys who are great hitters have great hands. You couple that with the physical strength that he has and that's why he puts up the numbers he has."

Smith clashed with coaches in the past over his incessant weightlifting. Last season, Smith argued with Oklahoma State Coach Tom Holliday "every single day" over Smith's time in the weight room. It was a contributing factor in Smith's diminished role.

Smith had similar feuds with coaches but more success at Fresno, where he was an All-American as a sophomore after batting .355 with 11 home runs.

"They didn't believe in weightlifting, really," Smith said. "That's one of the reasons I wanted to come here, how they are about weightlifting and all that."

Batesole was another reason.

"The scouts were all telling me about Batesole and how he was with hitting," Smith said.

Batesole moved from the coaching box to the dugout this season, specifically to scrutinize batters and quickly correct flaws. Batesole has been able to detect chinks in Smith's armor. Smith credits the coach with helping him work through a recent slump.

Smith, who was selected Big West player of the week March 13, had a solo home run Saturday against Sacramento after a one-week dry spell.

"I was twitching and jerking at everything instead of being smooth," Smith said. "He notices that stuff."

That makes Smith even stronger.

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