BRANDON — If you're ever looking for Mike Smith, the best place to start would be the Brandon High baseball field.
Smith is often there before school, dragging the infield. He heads down for some work in the batting cage during lunch break. After practices or games, he rakes the catcher's box or cleans up the dugout. Sometimes Smith's the last one to leave, shutting down the field and turning off the lights.
Sounds like the yeoman work of a freshman, right? Wrong.
Smith, a senior, just may be the best hitter in Hillsborough County.
"All I do is play baseball," Smith said. "I'm the first one out here and the last one to leave."
Most high school baseball players begrudgingly care for their home field but Smith does it because he wants to, not because it's required. For Smith, leadership starts with examples more than words.
"I wanted to come out this year, step up and show I'm the leader of this team," Smith said. "I think I've proven that."
Smith's results in the batter's box speak for themselves, but his tireless dedication to the game — and the Brandon program — set him apart.
"He's my go-to guy," Brandon coach Matt Stallbaumer said. "We always joke that the kid's 18 years old, but he communicates with us like an adult and if I need something, he's who I go to."
Smith, who will play first base for St. Petersburg College next season, has been equal parts star player, coach and mentor for the Eagles.
"His leadership helped prep these guys for what was ahead of them," Stallbaumer said. "The younger kids could play, but they had no idea of what it took to go to Bloomingdale for a big district game."
Part of Smith's work ethic can be attributed to a tough upbringing. His parents are divorced and Smith watched his older brother Brett let off-the-field problems derail a promising career.
"He could flat out swing it," Smith said of his brother. "But I watched him screw up his baseball career and just throw it away. I didn't want that to happen to me."
He said his father, Mark, "kicked my butt and pushed me hard" but Smith also credits him for being "an inspiration."
"He was tough, but he made me a better player," Smith said.
And even with baseball and schoolwork occupying up to 15 hours a day, Smith still manages to squeeze in a few hours of work on a late shift to help his family out financially.
"Nothing has ever been easy for Michael Smith," Stallbaumer said. "Nothing."
Smith was a freshman when Stallbaumer took over a Brandon program on a downturn.
"That first year was horrible," Stallbaumer said. "But he stuck with it."
The Eagles improved slightly Smith's sophomore season and last year he spearheaded an improbable run to the 5A state semifinals for a team that started as many as seven sophomores. Smith hit better than .400 with four home runs — including a walkoff in the Saladino final and a game-tying shot in the region finals. Though the Eagles came up one short of the state final, things certainly looked good for this season.
Then came the injuries.
James Ramsey and Roderick Shoulders, Smith's protection in the lineup, were both lost with serious injuries. All of a sudden, a promising senior year for Smith looked like a potential nightmare ending.
"I knew we couldn't stop fighting," Smith said. "We just had to keep working."
And Smith and the Eagles have held it together, compiling an impressive 15-4 record as of press time. Smith is hitting .510 with five homers and 20 RBIs and it looks like Shoulders may return to the lineup just before districts start in a few weeks.
And occasionally Smith gets to go home and rest, although not for very long. But before he does that, he gets in a few swings off the tee at his house.
"We started here at Brandon at the same time; he stuck through the tough times and had this big-time season last year when we got to the final four. Then, just like in life, we ran into a roadblock with the injuries but he and the team kept fighting and working," Stallbaumer said. "And that's really Mike Smith's life in a nutshell."