Coach's wisdom transcends game
Fairfield's Smith has battled serious illness

Friday, April 17, 1998

Enquirer contributor

ralph smith
Fairfield baseball coach Ralph Smith works with shrtstop Kevin Aston.
(Gary Landers photo)
| ZOOM |
It's been seven years since Ralph Smith, Fairfield's second-year baseball coach, was given two to six months to live.

Smith was diagnosed with multiple myeloma (malignant tumor of bone marrow). Blood tests also revealed that Smith's kidneys were failing.

"I didn't think I would be around much longer," said the 62-year-old Smith, who has also coached the seven-time national champion Midland Redskins amateur team since 1979.

"When I started feeling bad, I was coaching for the Midland Redskins. My wife, Jane, knew what the doctors said but she didn't tell me until after Midland won the (1992) national championship." Smith became ill a week before the Connie Mack Amateur World Series in Farmington, N.M. But, Jim Hayden, the sponsor of the Midland team, flew Smith to the World Series.

"It was the most heart-warming thing I ever experienced," Smith said. "Every player had my number (2) on the back of their hats and they dedicated the championship to me."

After the Redskins won the title, Smith was speechless.

"All the guys hoisted me on to their shoulders and carried me off the field," Smith said. "I looked into the bleachers and saw my wife crying. It was then that she gave me the news."

Despite the dire predictions, Smith underwent a bone marrow transplant and biweekly chemotherapy treatments.

For the next 20 months, Smith fought the battle while at the same time also undergoing dialysis treatments for the kidney problems. "Three days a week, I go to a clinic for the dialysis treatments," Smith said.

A needle that draws the blood out is inserted on one side and another needle in the other side to put it back in. This process takes about four hours with a machine purifying the blood.

Smith reports every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 5 a.m. to a clinic and is usually home by 10 a.m.

Since his kidneys don't function, Smith is limited to only 36 ounces of fluids a day.

"I have some water but chew on ice a lot," he said.

Smith's diet is void of dairy products and other foods that contain phosphorus. However, he can eat most meats, fish, fruits and vegetables. "Nobody could go through what I went through by themselves," Smith said. "God gave me the inner strength to endure it. My priorities have changed and I'm now a better person because of it."

Baseball has been a big part of Smith's life for nearly 60 years. A native of Hamilton, Smith played in the local leagues before wearing a Big Blue uniform at Hamilton High School. Upon graduation in 1954, he took a job with Champion Paper Company in Hamilton.

"If you don't go to college, your baseball days are over," Smith said. "That's when I became involved in fast-pitch softball. I played on seven national champion teams and I learned to love the sport."

Smith's three sons, Mark, Doug and Danny, were also outstanding baseball players in high school. Despite the illness, Smith seldom missed a game.

"Mark was good enough to make the 16-year-old Midland team when he was 15-years-old," Smith said. "He was coached by Gordon Betorino, a guy who didn't care for parents."

However, the next season (1977), Betorino approached Smith about serving as an assistant coach.

"The first thing I told Gordon was that I was a parent," Smith said. "He told me he knew that but had checked me out and I thought I could help him."

Smith has remained with the Midland organization and attended each of the seven national championship games.

When Gary Yeatts decided to step down at Fairfield following the 1996 baseball season, Smith discussed the position with Bill Stewart, the school's athletic director.

"Bill told me they would probably open the job to the outside because there wasn't a teaching position available," Smith said. "Several weeks later, he asked me to apply."

The decision to hire Smith, who understands the game and relates well to teen-agers, has turned out to be a brilliant move.

"To replace a coach (Yeatts) with 500 wins, we needed a guy with experience," Stewart said. "Ralph's a long-time resident of Fairfield and has a great relationship with Midland. The transition has been easy for the kids."

Smith seldom raises his voice and continually teaches the fundamentals. "Ralph is a real teacher and does a great coaching job," Stewart said. "But even more important, he's teaching the kids the game of life."

During games, Smith sits in a chair along the fence outside the dugout, observing the opposing pitcher. He often reminds the hitter to go with the pitch or level his swing.

"I also scouted for a major league baseball combine service until several years ago when they cut back," Smith said. "Fairfield had a good run of players in the late 1970s and 1980s."

Knowing what the major league scouts are looking for, Smith predicted that senior pitcher Steve Kelly would be a first or second round draft choice.

"Steve is the best pitcher I've seen come through Fairfield," Smith said. "Mechanically, Steve's very sound. He has a great fast ball that's well over 90 miles per hour."

Kelly has already accepted a baseball grant-in-aid with Georgia Tech but Smith doesn't know which way he'll go when drafted.

"Steve's an outstanding student and it will take a lot of money to sign him," Smith said. "He has two great options. He can go now or wait three years and get drafted again."

This year, Fairfield is off to a 4-2 start, and Smith is confident that the pitching will come around and the Indians will be competitive. The Fairfield players are fortunate to have Smith as their coach. There's little doubt that they will learn more than just how to win baseball game.

If the pitching holds up, there's a chance that Smith could be carried from the field again in June, this time holding a Division I state championship trophy.

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