The life of a professional baseball player isn't easy.
The 2 1/2 hours fans see during a game represent less than a quarter of the time ballplayers spend practicing and conditioning.
That can grind on the mind and body.
"It's one of those things where you'll be running sprints, and you're tired. You don't want to do it," said Tri-City Dust Devils infielder Tim Smalling. "All you have to think about is, man, I'm so lucky to be here right now. There's a lot of people not fortunate enough to have this opportunity."
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So when Smalling hits a wall, he calls on a friend to inspire him.
Blayne Brown, a former high school teammate at Broughton High School in Raleigh, N.C., was coming back to the University of South Carolina after a spring break trip in 2006 when his car was involved in an accident along Interstate 95. Brown's passenger was fortunate enough to walk away with only a few scratches. Brown, however, was killed.
In the wake of Brown's death, there remained a legacy of friendship for Smalling and a constant reminder that life isn't to be taken for granted.
"One of the things you realize is that life is a lot shorter than you think. You might as well live life while you can," said Smalling, who was a senior at Broughton when Brown died.
In the five years since, Smalling has used every opportunity to fulfill his own potential as a baseball player.
A two-time all-state player in high school, Smalling moved on to the University of Arkansas, splitting starts at second base and shortstop in 2007-08. After deciding he needed a change, the 6-foot-2 right-hander transferred to Virginia Tech, where he helped stabilize a team in need of some middle-infield help.
With the Hokies, Smalling continued to mature and develop his approach to the game.
"If I had come out of high school (to play professionally), I don't think I would have been ready," Smalling said. "There were a lot of life lessons that have helped me adjust to the pro game."
In June of 2010, he was selected by the Washington Nationals in the 14th round of Major League Baseball's First-Year Player Draft, but a shoulder injury convinced him to stay in college for his senior season. In his senior year at Va. Tech, he started 54 games and put up some flashy numbers at the plate, batting .314 with 14 doubles, six triples, nine home runs and 42 RBIs.
He also took care of business off the field, finishing his degree in public relations.
"When I started my college baseball career, I was thinking three (years) and out, but after the injury I set my sights on finishing school," he said. "Now, if baseball doesn't work out, I have something to fall back on, and I don't have to worry about going back and finishing classes."
Right now, his favorite class is baseball. And he's one of the Dust Devils' best students.
"The best way to describe him is he's a solid baseball player and fundamentally sound," said Tri-City manager Fred Ocasio, a former middle infielder himself who dubbed Smalling with the nickname 'Doubles'.
"He'd be in the on deck circle, and I'd call out to him, 'Come on, Doubles,' and the next thing you know, he'd be on second base," Ocasio said.
Smalling has been one of the Dust Devils' top catalysts on offense, ranking in the top hitters in the Northwest League in several categories. He is tied for second in the league in runs (31) and doubles (14), ranks fourth with four triples and is eighth in slugging percentage (.439) while carrying a .295 batting average.
He's adjusting well to the nuances of the pro game and seems to enjoy his daily battles with the league's top pitchers.
"If hitting isn't the most difficult thing in sports, it's definitely one of them," Smalling said. "For me, it's about getting a rhythm and finding your timing with a pitcher. It's almost like dancing out there. If you're in a rhythm, you've got a better shot at being on time and putting a good swing on the ball."
He has also split time between shortstop and second base, which increases his skill set and gives him more value within the Colorado Rockies system. In 40 starts, he has committed 11 errors but continues to evolve every day.
"Usually a player that can play shortstop can play second base, but that's not always the case," said Rockies' roving infield coordinator Scott Fletcher, who played 15 seasons in the majors as an infielder. "Your feet have to be a little quicker on the right side of second base because of the footwork around the bag. But he has the footwork and the hands to play both."
Hitting from the No. 2 hole, Smalling has been a big reason for the team's success, and he is eager to see where the 2011 season will take the Dust Devils, the NWL's first-half East Division champions.
No matter how it ends, though, he'll always have a little help from his friend.
w Jack Millikin; 582-1406; email@example.com