Mark Smith, the Canadian who chilled Southern California batters

Written by Bob on April 14th, 2010


Mark Smith, Head Coach, Canada Senior Women’s National Team

“He was wild back then and very intimidating. I got hit by him a couple of times. He had that old pitchers mentality, ‘if you dig in against me, you’re fair game.’” -Greg Sepulveda, ISC Hall of Fame, 2006

By BOB OTTO / Yucaipa, CA
(first written on Oct. 24, 1999)
www.ottoinfocus.com
botto3@verison.net.

NOVA SCOTIA, CA – He blew into Southern California from Canada like a bone-chilling, north wind. He had powerful biting pitches and the God-given speed that only the truly great fastpitch softball pitchers possess.

Much like Nolan Ryan, when Mark Smith was “on” no one touched him. Including the great hitters of Southern California and the Western Softball Congress.

Along with his blazing speed was a touch of youthful wildness. Wildness that froze hitters in the box. Wildness from a 80-plus mph under-the-chin rise ball that made batters creep back to the outer reaches of the batters box – for safety’s sake.

There were two possibilities when facing Smith: It was damn near impossible to hit him, but quite possible to get hit by him. Hitters feared the possible and came to accept and respect the near impossible.

When Smith arrived in California to pitch for the Camarillo Kings in 1981 no one expected the sudden transfer of power that was about to take place in the Western Softball Congress. Sure the Kings looked good on paper. Sure they had signed this 21-year-old fire-baller from Canada.

But California had great pitchers up and down the west coast. This after all was the WSC, one of North America’s most powerful men’s fastpitch softball leagues.

The Kings appeared to be competitive, but the establishment – the Long Beach Nitehawks, Lakewood Jets, Lancaster Chameleons, and Vista Bombers – were still expected to rule. That is until Smith arrived.

Smith was tough. Downright menacing. Built more along the lines of a linebacker at six-foot and 225 pounds, he was an intimidating presence say some of the WSC’s top hitters.

“You couldn’t dig in against him,” said Greg Sepulveda, who played shortstop for the Lakewood Jets and Lancaster Chameleons. “He was wild back then and very intimidating. I got hit by him a couple of times. He had that old pitchers mentality, ‘if you dig in against me, you’re fair game.’”

And the fairest game was the California slappers. Running up in the box on Smith often got the slappers a closer-than-wanted look at his inside rise ball.

“Terry Canale (Long Beach Nitehawks) was the first slapper I faced,”said Smith. “He wasn’t a very big guy and in his case I used intimidation. I threw pretty hard, so I threw rise balls up and in to brush him off the plate. Once I got it into his head that if he committed early he might get hit with a pitch, it threw off his timing and I was able to exploit that.”

Translation: Instill fear.

Jerry Hoffman, who played 12 years in the WSC agreed. The hardest part? “Overcoming fear,” said Hoffman with a laugh. “He threw so hard that you didn’t dare dig in – Mark was very intimidating. I remember a pitch he threw to Terry (Canale). It was a rise ball in. Terry ducked and it went right over his head. The ball hit the backstop and bounced all the way to the outfield.

“In the WSC you faced great pitching day in and day out – Paul Magan, Kevin Herlihy, Steve Schultz,” added Hoffman. “Game in and game out, Smith was one of the hardest throwers we faced. You either learned to adjust to his type of pitching or it would destroy your confidence and make players run back to the A and B leagues.”

“I saw him throw for the first time at Joe Rogers field in Long Beach,”said former ISC Executive Director, Milt Stark. “He threw awfully, awfully hard. I’ve never seen anyone throw any harder. But he had very little control. He certainly went on to prove himself.”

Smith certainly did, leading the Camarillo Kings to two ISC World Tournament titles in 1981 and 1982. It was a brief stay in the spotlight for Smith and the Kings, but during that time he put up some impressive numbers.

“Overall in 1981 I was 34-5 and in ‘82, I was around 40-6,”said Smith. “I’m told that I went 19-0 in the World Tournament before losing, but I’m not sure.”

Nearing 20 years since his California experience, Smith looks back with fondness at that period in his life and has agreed to share some of his memories with us.

What was the Southern California fastpitch when you came on the scene in 1981? Southern California in the late 1970s until the mid-80s was the place to play fastpitch softball in the United States. The WSC had a great reputation for producing world-class teams and players. If you look at the quality of the teams in the state and the success the California teams enjoyed almost yearly at the ISC World Tournament, it speaks for itself.

Many WSC batters have labeled you as wild and intimidating. Was that an image you tried to establish? I was there to make an impression and carry my own. My friend (and teammate) Larry Nolan fully apprised me of the Congress and its great teams and players. As a pitcher I always saw myself as the last line of defense.

Yes, I tried to intimidate and looked to see who I could (intimidate), and it usually worked. I weighed 220 pounds and was six-foot tall during my two years in California. I threw the ball hard and I was effectively wild, which helped a great deal. I think hitters had a healthy respect for me.

Did hitters fear you? I don’t know if they feared me, but I believe the pitcher has as much right to the full plate as the hitter. A hitter has to be willing to ‘pay the price’. I pitched both sides of the plate and some hitters don’t like that. I didn’t purposely try to show anyone up; however if I faced a hitter attempting to show me up, then it became a test of wills.

Any memorable ‘test of wills’? I remember one player in particular, Dave Garcia of Lancaster (Chameleons). Dave had a habit of glaring at pitchers and would hit himself in the back while he took his warm-up swings. I suppose for intimidation. He was the first player in the WSC that appeared eager to test me. I don’t think he ever got a hit off me. He learned the hard way that I wasn’t going to put up with too much sh_ _.

Facing California “slappers” was a new experience for you. What was that like? Slap hitting hadn’t made its way to Canada yet. Terry Canale was the first slapper I ever faced. I didn’t like it because the slapper was getting to the pitch before the ball had a chance to break, so it was a problem for a short time. But slappers have to commit early; therefore, if you move the ball around they have trouble.

Any special “slapper” memories? At the 1982 World Tournament we were to play the Saginaw Bolters on Friday night. Earlier in the week my teammate Corky Corcoran was in the beer tent when my old buddy Kevin Herlihy informed Corky that if he tried to slap against him, he might ‘get one in the ribs’. Corky snorted back, ‘I’ll take my chances, my guy (meaning me) throws a lot harder than you do’.

Sure enough Kevin pins Corky after they fall behind a couple of runs. Andy Konopacki was pitching for us, but around the fifth inning I got into the game. To defend my guys, as I always did, I pinned a Bolter player and Corky never had a problem after that.

It seems your catchers had a bit of problem handling your pitches? It was my first year in the WSC and I was having a heck of a time with catchers. My pitches broke late which made reacting to the pitch difficult for the catcher and for hitters. Catchers found it difficult to pick up the (ball) rotation, and my delivery motion made it difficult to see the ball out of my hand. Third strike passed balls were the norm, so I got used to pitching myself out of jams.

Was there a catcher you were finally comfortable with? After I broke Tony Woods left thumb in the first game of the WSC, we went through a considerable time finding catchers until we stumbled onto Jerry Leavitt. Jerry got thrust into catching me in the finals of the Lakewood tournament when Sam Triana got hurt. We won that tournament and Jerry inherited the job and we went on to have more than a little success together.

Tell us about the leagues you’ve played in.
I played in three leagues that I thought were exceptionally competitive. The Western Softball Congress offered great balance and the upper teams were very competitive with each other. Even some of the weaker teams were tough when their best pitcher pitched.

I got my first taste of world-class softball playing in The Norwest League…Seattle Pay & Pak with Graham Arnold pitching. That Seattle team was the forerunner of the great Seattle team of the 1980s with Jimmy Moore, Bill Boyer, Randy Burnside, Bruce Beard and Tim Wahl.

The Western Major Fastball League, which featured Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, was an extremely competitive league. The legendary Gene McWillie was a dominant force and future stars like Marty Kernaghan, Brian Sosnowski and Glen Jevne were standouts in the WFL. All three leagues involved many of the great players of the 1970s and ‘80s era.

Who were some of the great pitchers you faced while in California? It’s a pretty impressive list: Peter Brown, Cary Weiler, Bob Todd, Bob Versteig, my good friend the late Paul Megan, Jay Bob Bickford, Ralph Salazar, Rich Balswick, KG Fincher, Chuck D’Arcy, Jim Smith, Kevin Herlihy, Steve Jackson, Chubb Tangaroa.

Just prior to my arriving in California, Pete Meredith had been in Bakersfield, so the history of attracting world-class pitching to California improved the quality of ball. Players made the comment that to get out of Southern California to the World Tournament was tougher that winning the World Tournament, and I found that comment to have some truth.

Which hitters gave you problems? Teddy Dominguez (Lakewood Jets) comes immediately to mind. I don’t ever remember getting him out. Steve Trigliatto (Vista Bombers) was a great hitter. A few others had good success against me: Greg Sepulveda, John Miller, Hice Stiles and Bob Aguilar of the Lakewood Jets. And Jerry Hoffman, Jack Settles and Alan Rohrback of the Vista Bombers.

Jerry Hoffman says that not having a change up was the only salvation when facing you. Wish you had developed one? Jerry’s correct, back then it was my power against their power. It was man-a-mano and made for some classic confrontations. I didn’t have a change up and that is the one thing I wish I had worked harder on. If I had, I might still be pitching today at the world-class level.

The lack of an off-speed pitch hurt me more and more as the years passed. Two years ago I was throwing the ball very well, however I couldn’t fool the good hitter the third time through the order. I could get two strikes on most hitters faster than most pitchers even today, but I couldn’t finish them off. The change up would have been the difference.

Who were some of the top managers in that era? Bill Hardy (Lakewood Jets) comes immediately to mind. Bill was smart and understood the game. Dick Jacquez who coached Camarillo. Like Bill, he was a player’s coach; someone who played the game and understood how players think. Tom Wagner of Seattle Pay & Pak.

There aren’t many managers that can actually win a game with their strategy, but Tom could. He was the master of deception and could get in an opposing team’s head and create opportunities for his team to capitalize on.

Was there anyone in particular that had an influence on your career?
Jackie Newman, our pitching coach in Camarillo. I credit Jack as being the person who got me over the hump and made me a legitimate world-class pitcher. He had the best knowledge of pitching I’ve ever known.

What other fond memories do you have of that by-gone Southern California era? The California experience, as I often refer to it, was an experience in life skills, and as a young black kid from eastern Canada I learned so much more about life than winning softball games. I do a lot of public speaking to young people here in Nova Scotia and I often relate experiences from those years and how they helped shape my life.

Doc Jones, Dick Jacquez, Jack Newman, Larry Nolan and Floyd Lavergne shared their wisdom with me and in turn made me a better person.

What has changed since that time? Opportunities like I was given in Southern California some 18 years ago don’t appear to be as appreciated for the “real” opportunity that it truly is. Young gifted players seem to view the opportunities they are given as a “right of passage,” something that is owed them if they show promise or win a championship.

Perhaps my age is showing, but I do think that the attitude of today’s players at the elite level is driven more by dollars and cents and less by the spirit of competition and self-satisfaction. As a young player I too took a lot of things for granted, but I’ve always realized that my visit to California was a tremendous opportunity. Playing there remains tops on my list.

(Mark Smith still has a major impact in the sport. He is the Head Coach of Canada’s Women’s National Team program. Previously, he was Head Coach of the national men’s program. Smith was inducted into Softball Canada Hall of Fame in 1999. And in 2004, he was inducted into the ISC Hall of Fame.)

For more great fastpitch news, visit these websites:
Al’s Fastball
Fastpitch West
International Softball Congress
North American Fastpitch Association
2010 ISC World Tournament, Midland, Mich.

10 Comments so far ↓

  1. We, The NJ Windmillers, faced Mark in Amsterdam, NY in the 90’s. It actually snowed that night and was bitter cold. Good thing we couldn’t hit him because that would have really stung our hands!!! LOL

  2. FRANK tREJO says:

    I’M TRYING TO LOCATE AN EX-SOFTBALL PLAYER AND MANAGER OF THE LAKEWOOD JETS OF THE OLD WESTERN SOFTBALL CONFERENCE IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA.HIS NAME IS BILL HARDY.

  3. Bob says:

    Frank, I don’t have a phone number for you. But try Jim Flanagan at http://www.fastpitchwest.com, if you haven’t already. Good luck.

  4. dave garcia says:

    you know once in a while i ckeck and see what”s going on in the isc and the western softball conference news.usually i just read the articles and it brings back some great memories! usually i don”t get involved i what oeople do or say…but when someone makes a comment about me that is not true, i have to say something…i read all these wonderful things about mark smith…i think he was asked if their was any batter that tried to intimidate him..he said that when i was in the batters box i glared at the pitcherand swang so hard you can hear the thump when i hit my back…i never did that.the only time i tried to intimidate a pitcher was when i was in the batter”s box.i wish it was me,but that was the trademark of jj…jack johnson!!first of all,i faced the greatest pichers,in an era where fast pitch softball was at it”s peak…there will never ever be another time like that in fast pitch history!!!it was an honor to be part of that era!!and as far as intimidation,in those days…i never was by any pitcher!!!if you were intimidated by a pitcher,you shouldn”t be hitting or playing the game!…im sorry i hate to be different..the thing that sticks in my head about mark is that he was arrogant,concieted and cared only about himself…yes i was cocky myself,..and confident..not concieted.his memory is bad too….the first time i faced mark smith i went 2 for 5..of course he will deny it,but it”s true…check the books..but the the the thing that botherd me is that he purposely threw at my head to try to hurt me…a ball being thrown that hard at that distance could have killed me or permanently

  5. TOM MURPHY says:

    HEY DAVE. IM TOM MURPHY. MY DAD USED TO MANAGE THE OLD LAKEWOOD CHARTERS THAT FINISHED 3RD IN THE 67 WORLD TURNEY. I USED TO FOLLOW THE JETS WITH BAILEY, CORMACK, MARTINEZ, KLECKER, HENDERSON ETC. AND THEN FOLLOWED YOU GUYS – THE HAWKS. I REMEMBER YOU HITTING .400 IN THE CONGRESS ONE YEAR. ONLY GUY TO HAVE DONE THAT PRIOR WAS HAL MARTINEZ. I STILL FOLLOW THE ISC WEBSITE BUT ITS A SHAME THAT PITCHERS NOW A DAYS CAN JUMP WAY OFF. I COLLECT OLD PROGRAMS. ANY CHANCE OF GETTING A HOLD OF A NITEHAWKS PROGRAM FROM WHEN YOU WERE PLAYING? I CAN PROVIDE MY ADDRESS. LIVE IN UPLAND, ABOUT 40 MILES FROM LONG BEACH. THIS IS TOM MURPHY. MY DAD WAS BEST BUDS WITH GEORGE PEARSON, CLINT HERRON, DENNIS CORMACK, ETC..

  6. Frank Trejo says:

    ANYONE OUT THERE KNOW THE WHEREABOUTS OF BILL HARDY – PLAYED AND MANAGED THE LAKEWOOD JETS IN THE WSC IN THE ’70S?

  7. Bob says:

    Frank, you might try contacting Milt Stark at mdstark@aol.com to try and locate Hardy.

  8. Rob Soricelli says:

    Hello . I am an ex Fastpitch softball player , who played at the elite level for many years . I know Mark and respect what he has brought to the game over the years . I had the chance to face Mark Smith up in Nova Scotia . It was a challenge and a great experience . I did manage to get a hit off of him going 1-3 . I am looking to contact mark at this time . I am now a college coach at a D2 school in New York , USA .. If anyone can help me please send me an email ..
    rosricell7@gmail.com. … Thank You

  9. Rob Soricelli says:

    Sorry my email is
    rsoricelli7@gmail.com

  10. Bob says:

    Hi Rob. Mark is the Head Coach of Canada’s women’s national softball team. Here is the contact info that should get you to him. Thanks for writing and great to hear you are still involved in the sport.
    Softball Canada

    223 Colonnade Rd., Ste 212
    Ottawa, ON, K2E 7K3
    info@softball.ca
    Phone: 613.523.3386
    Fax: 613.523.5761

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