UT Martin pitcher beats the odds
Born without a right hand, Smith inspires those around him
When you watch UT Martin freshman pitcher Carter Smith windup and go through his delivery on the mound, at first glance he looks like every other collegiate pitcher going through the ritual.
But there is one thing that differentiates Smith from the rest -- he was born without a right hand.
It was a pretty normal childhood for Smith, who grew up in St. Louis, Mo., in a large family with five siblings. Like many college baseball players, Smith grew up fielding grounders and playing catch in the backyard with his father and older brother.
The disability, however, never set Smith back. He adapted, never knowing anything different. Smith played baseball, football and basketball as a youngster, continuing with basketball until his sophomore year in high school, and then concentrating on baseball for the rest of his secondary schooling.
Smith learned early on he had been given the gift of a strong right arm, and youth league coaches noticed that right away. He began pitching as a second-grader and developed into solid competitor for Parkway West High School.
The UT Martin coaching staff discovered Smith earlier than most in the recruiting process when they were scouting one of Smith's high school teammates -- Dan Tobik, who is now a junior pitcher for the Skyhawks. They continued to follow Smith's progress and was willing to take a chance.
"We had a chance to see him pitch a couple of times playing in a summer league in St. Louis, and knew he would be a good college pitcher," UT Martin head coach Bubba Cates said.
But while Cates saw first-hand Smith's effectiveness on the mound, he admits the disability did have him second-guessing a bit.
"I think we all adjust our thinking about things as we learn about it," Cates said. "Carter has grown up with this, and so it is natural for him to do things like he does them. It's a little bit different for somebody that lost a hand and had to relearn how to do something, but that's how he learned."
Cates also knew about former Major League Baseball pitcher Jim Abbott, who also was born without a right hand. Abbott attended Michigan, garnering the prestigious Golden Spikes Award by USA Baseball and is a 2007 inductee to the College Baseball Hall of Fame. He went on to pitch professionally for a decade. Abbott was a pitcher for the New York Yankees when he threw a no-hitter in 1993.
Smith's pitching style draws comparisons to Abbott, who just released his autobiography, Imperfect: An Improbable Life.
"We knew how Jim Abbott competed, and what a neat thing that was to see," Cates said. "It was a great story. Carter is really similar."
As a young boy, Smith remembers attending a St. Louis Cardinals game at Busch Stadium with his dad, and watching Abbott pitch for the Anaheim Angels.
"Any time I hear about a kid who is playing and in a similar way that I was playing makes me really happy because I know the outlet sports can provide," Abbott said. "When you grow up a little bit different it's nice to have that venue to be able to prove yourself."
Like Abbott, after delivering a pitch, Smith must switch his glove immediately in order to field the ball. He moves the glove from his right arm to his pitching hand in seamless fashion.
"I'm really not sure how that even started," Smith said. "I just kept doing it over and over when I was young, and it was something that stuck with me."
Fielding is something Smith has worked hard to perfect with countless sessions of pitcher's infield practice.
"It's never been too much of an obstacle," Smith said. "Sometimes, if it is a slow ground ball and there is a fast runner I'll bare hand the ball instead of trying to do the glove switch. But if it is a ground ball back at me, I'll switch the glove."
Cates currently has Smith in the weekend starting rotation in the Sunday slot, and says he is a good strike-thrower and gives the Skyhawks a chance to play defense behind him. But what stands out about Smith for Cates is not something tangible.
"I think what may set him apart from other people is his competitiveness," Cates said. "We see evidence of that not just in baseball. His teammates talk about it when they get together to do other things like play ping pong or shoot baskets -- Carter usually plays for the winning team."
|Former MLB pitcher Jim Abbott talks to CNN about living with a disability and playing baseball. Watch|
In the last couple years Smith has shared his inspiring story with others, and has had players with the same type of disability friend him on Facebook.
"About a year ago, there was a kid who came to my summer team practice, and he had the same situation," Smith said. "He was eight or nine years old, so that was pretty neat. I got to talk with him a bit and give him some advice."
Throughout Abbott's career, children with similar situations and their parents have sought guidance and advice, so much so that it was one of the motivations that spurred him to write the autobiography.
"I've always tried to respond with a letter or a photo or something, but it is hard to say everything you need to say," Abbott said. "The book was a way for me to throw my experience out there and say that I know what it is like and have been there and these are the people who have helped me. The book is really for people that are different."
And while Abbott's story has encouraged Smith to make the most of his differences, his coaches and teammates just think he's one of the guys.
"It is obviously an interesting story because he's not like everybody else, although he is like everybody else," Cates said. "He would be a good college pitcher even if he was like everyone else. His teammates will tell you -- they see Carter as Carter."