Life on a Ball Bucket

Head Coach Mike Smith and the rest of the Royals 2019 coaching staff.

“If I ever write a book,” says Winchester Royals coach Mike Smith over the crackling speakerphone, ‘I’ll call it ‘Life on a Ball Bucket’ because that’s life in the Valley League. You sit on a ball bucket all summer and develop young ballplayers.” Throughout his extended coaching career, Smith has accumulated an incredible amount of baseball experience. He has spent 12 years sitting on his ball bucket in the Shenandoah Valley, working with 5 separate VBL teams, including the Royals as an assistant coach in 2010. Smith has also coached at various high schools in the Northern Virginia area, including his current position at the helm of Clarke County High School’s varsity squad, and has been the Northern Virginia Daily High School Coach of the Year 3 separate times. In September of 2018, he was hired to lead the Royals for the 2019 Valley League season. Men who have been in baseball for a long time are often superstitious people. Oakland Athletics manager Bob Melvin rotates parking spots based on how well his team is performing. The 2017 Philadelphia Phillies coaching staff had a similar rotating system where bench coaches would rotate which coach handed in the lineup card, depending on the outcome of previous games. The former Baltimore Orioles skipper Buck Showalter would habitually starve himself on important game days, limiting himself to a banana, coffee, and some Dubble Bubble from a bucket in the dugout. Smith is in a similar frame of mind. He says that superstitions often preoccupy his thoughts before and even during games. “I always try to remember if we won the last time I filled out the lineup with the blue pen or the black pen, and I always put on my uniform in the exact same order,” he states amongst many, many other examples. “People think you’re crazy, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to win a ballgame.” The superstitions that Smith partakes in seemingly add to the ethos of the experienced head coach. Baseball as we know it is changing. The arts of bunting, contact hitting, and control pitching are dying out, and they are being replaced by lots of homeruns, flamethrowers, and strikeouts. More than ever, data and analytics are taking over the developmental elements of the game. Mike Smith is not necessarily a fan of this trend. He honed his skills as an associate scout in the Kansas City Royals organization between 2008 and their successful World Series run in 2015. From this experience, he learned to identify talent “within 10-15 minutes of watching the little things a player does,” things that the numbers cannot quantify. It can be hard to put a number on those minute intangibles, but they are readily evident to an experienced scout like Smith. He also states that he will pursue whatever strategies give him a chance to win games, regardless of what the number crunchers say. “If we can move a guy into scoring position with a bunt, we’re going to bunt and the players are going to be on board with that. If we have a guy who can steal bases, we’re going to give him the green light to steal bases.” Royals fans are no strangers to stolen bases. In the summer of 2018, the team stole an astonishing 120 bags, 42 more than any other team in the Valley League and good for just under 3 steals per game. This comes in an era where stolen bases are becoming rarer and rarer in high level baseball. Smith is similarly averse to the effect of things like social media and swing trackers on his players. “These days, everybody on Twitter is a ‘hitting guru’ who tries to get everyone to try and swing like themselves.” He also believes that while watching film can be beneficial for some, guys can get overwhelmed by all the data they are faced with. “Sometimes it just messes with their heads too much. And these guys are on loan to us from colleges, so we don’t want to mess with their mechanics too much.” Nevertheless, the VBL is still about improving players. Smith says he always finds this to be an inviting challenge. “A few guys have already reached out to me and told me how excited they are to work this summer, especially pitchers. There are guys who want to work on new pitches, guys that want to fix issues with mechanics, and there are some guys who just need some innings under their belts.” While the pitching staff is lining up to be a solid unit, Smith is even more excited about the offense he will get to coach. He has used his eye for talent to acquire several ballplayers who have received all-conference honors throughout the college levels, including Pitt freshman and Winchester native Alex Amos. Even though of his players are still finishing up the NCAA playoffs, Smith is expecting to be able to implement his exciting full lineup within a week of the June 1st opener. The Royals finished fourth in the Northern Division in 2018, and swept Purcellville in the first round of the playoffs before being knocked off by the eventual VBL champions, the New Market Rebels. Winchester has come back stronger than ever and will boast one of the toughest lineups in the league on Opening Day. Smith’s leadership from the ball bucket will give the Royals a realistic shot at attaining their first VBL title since 2004.

Come watch the Winchester Royals this season at Bridgeforth Field! Click here for game schedule.

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