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A slightly closer look at Will Smith’s return

In case you had forgotten, baseball is a metaphor.

San Francisco Giants v Chicago Cubs Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images

Pain is loss. Fear is the impulse to avoid pain. Today, Will Smith went out there and pitched through his fear, which is a far more courageous act than we’re willing to admit. When it comes to professional athletes, most of us tell ourselves that these dudes are comforted by their millions of dollars and guaranteed contracts — no matter what “they’ll be fine”.

This isn’t an argument about baseball economics, privilege, or #FirstWorldProblems and it’s not even about the male ego or human pride. Look around and you’ll see that fear drives the world. Will Smith could’ve not fought through the pain and embarrassment of rehab, could’ve let all those doubts keep him from having the confidence to challenge hitters, but he didn’t. Let’s stop and think about how cool that is.

How many times in your adult life can you remember being so happy you know that if you saw a picture of yourself in that moment you’d practically relive the experience through your soul? That’s not the look of a person who’s glad they’re already arbitration eligible, that’s the look of a person who feels alive, because they’ve succeeded at overcoming their fear.

I don’t know Will Smith. I like his movies and he throws 94 mph, but I have no idea if he’s a “good dude”, if he’s got a zen mindset, if he’s type-A, an asshole, etc. What I know is that in this moment, I could relate to him. He was my brother. And yours. We’ve all had our Tommy John comeback trail. We’ve all had our fork in the road where we’ve wondered if we’re going to make it all the way back. And we’ve all had that moment where it clicked and all made sense. Where we could feel the weight of the struggle fall off us, yet unburdened we understood and could appreciate why we needed it to make it this far.

None of us have challenged major league hitters with a 94 mph, biting slider, and sharp curveball, though, and that’s another remarkable (though less distinctly human) part of what Will Smith accomplished today. Yes, yes, a lefty reliever came back from surgery that he had a long time ago and he had to throw 19 pitches in a single inning... but that’s the voice of the critic the truly courageous ignore on the comeback trail. That’s fear throwing its voice like a ventriloquist to make you think you’re surrounded by naysayers.

By my estimation, 7 of the 19 pitches Smith threw today were “courage” pitches. The first was the fifth pitch of the inning. It was against A.J. Ellis with a 2-2 count. The first four pitches had all been fastballs. And then he snapped a curveball that broke right before it hit the outer corner of the strike zone and dipped below Ellis’ knee. Called for a ball, but a really good teaser pitch that Ellis might’ve swung at another day. It was no “show me” breaking ball, either. It was a challenge. The entire theme of this appearance, in fact, was “challenge”. Ellis would walk, but this wasn’t because he was flustered. Smith might’ve been amped up for his first appearance, but it didn’t show in his stuff or his sequencing.

The next time he threw that curveball was the third pitch of the at bat to the next hitter, Travis Jankowski. That one didn’t dip beneath the zone, but it snapped hard enough to get Jankowski to swing right over it. The next pitch, the tenth of the inning, was another challenge: a 94 mph fastball up in the zone that he simply blew right past Jankowski for a strikeout. It didn’t take long for him to work his pitches and change eye lines like he was in midseason form.

He conquered his fear — that fear of coming back only to fail immediately — by simply coming right after the hitters. He wasn’t going to let them add to his fear. The last four pitches of the inning either challenged or setup Eric Hosmer: a curveball that started at the knees away and broke out of the zone that Hosmer chased, then a slider or curveball (there’s a conflict between GameDay and my eyes) that was in the middle of the zone but down that Hosmer fouled off, then a challenge fastball up and away that missed the zone and Hosmer laid off of all to setup a biting slider in the dirt down and away that Hosmer couldn’t help but chase.

There was no nibbling the outside corners, staying away from hitter’s power (most of his pitches to Margot were up and in) or only using one pitch. Everything looked good and, most importantly, he met the moment with courage.

That was really cool.