By Tim Casey
At the Georgia Dome in Atlanta on Aug. 28, Ole Miss faces Boise State in the Chick-Fil-A kickoff game, the opener of the college football season. More than 2,000 miles away, in San Diego, the Padres have a rare off day in their home city.
For outfielder Seth Smith, the scheduling quirk comes at an ideal time. Smith, a Mississippi resident who once served as Eli Manning's backup for three years at Ole Miss, is in the midst of a breakout year. Through Thursday's games, the 31-year-old ranked among the top four in the National League in on-base percentage, OPS and OPS+. (Usually. He's continually walking the line of having enough plate appearances to qualify for the rankings on a daily basis.) Only Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig could say the same.
Still, as is the case with most native Southerners, Smith is a bigger fan of Saturdays in the fall than the six-month daily grind of baseball.
"Football probably still is my favorite sport," Smith said. "Just how complex it is and how much thinking's involved and the execution that it takes from 11 different guys to run a play successfully are always fun for me to watch and try to figure out."
Growing up in Mississippi, Smith dreamed of playing quarterback in the SEC. He enrolled at Ole Miss in 2001 on a football scholarship, expecting to compete for the starting job once Manning left after the 2002 season. By then, Smith would have three years of eligibility remaining and would have a chance to compete in the toughest conference in the country. If he succeeded, an NFL career potentially awaited.
Instead, Manning stayed another year and eventually became the top pick in the 2004 draft. Meanwhile, Smith realized if he had any chance to play professional sports, it would be in baseball. He had no trouble adjusting to college pitching and became the SEC's freshman of the year in 2002. The following summer, he and other top collegians helped Team USA win 27 of their 29 games in international competitions and the silver medal at the Pan American Games. He credits that experience with helping him receive more attention because scouts saw him hit with a wood bat for the first time and face some of the world's best young players.
Despite Smith's subpar junior year at Ole Miss, the Rockies selected him in the second round of the 2004 draft. Smith left college having never thrown a pass in a football game, although he had found his calling in baseball. It wasn't until a few years later that he appreciated Manning's talents.
"When you're there, you don't know any better," Smith said. "He was the only guy I got to see practice every day. Looking back now, his work ethic and the way he went about his business and really just how good he was on the practice field, how he took every rep seriously and the throws that he would make was impressive."
In San Diego, Manning's name still comes up in some of Smith's conversations, albeit not always in reverent tones. The Chargers selected Manning with the top pick in 2004 even though he and his family told team executives that he had no interest playing for the organization. They traded him to New York that same day. When the Giants traveled to San Diego last December, Chargers fans greeted Manning with boos. Nearly a decade later, they hadn't forgotten Manning's perceived betrayal.
Padres supporters, though, have grown to admire Manning's former understudy. After the lefthanded hitting Smith spent two years in Oakland mainly in a platoon with righthanders Jonny Gomes and Chris Young, the A's traded him to San Diego in December for reliever Luke Gregerson. The Rockies had dealt Smith to the A's in January 2012, so he understood baseball's unpredictable nature.
"When you're anywhere, nothing really surprises you, especially in Oakland," Smith said. "They're always looking to tweak their roster and do things here and there and do what they think they can do to make their team better. That's what they did. It's just one of those things. Everybody understands it. You're kind of a piece to a puzzle."
Smith has become a more integral part of the Padres than the team expected. Last year in Oakland, he had a career-low .391 slugging percentage and a .329 on-base percentage while playing in a home ballpark that's tough for hitters. Still, even when he was with the Rockies and playing his home games at Coors Field, he wasn't considered a top hitter.
During spring training, Padres outfielders Carlos Quentin and Cameron Maybin sustained injuries, allowing Smith to get more plate appearances. He is still in a platoon situation and has only three hits in 16 at-bats against lefthanded pitchers, but he is in the lineup every day against righthanders and continuing a streak that actually began late last year.
In August, after noticing he had blurry vision and 20-50 vision in one of his eyes, he underwent corrective Lasik surgery to fix the procedure he had done a few years earlier. In 28 at-bats in September, he hit .393 with a .469 on-base percentage and a .643 slugging percentage.
"I think [the blurry vision] was kind of messing with my confidence," Smith said. "It was the kind of thing where you may be defeated before you even get to the plate. Once I had that done, it felt like I was back to normal. I kind of got back in the groove of baseball."
The improvement has carried over to this year. Through Thursday's games, Smith was fourth in the National League with a .414 on-base percentage, fourth with a .951 OPS and third with a 173 OPS+. In May, his .459 on-base percentage and 1.142 OPS only trailed Puig and Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton among National League hitters who play on a regular basis.
"To date, he's been our best offensive performer," Padres manager Bud Black said. "I don't know where we'd be without him because he's really swung the bat well. It doesn't surprise me. He's a good player. He's a good hitter. We're very happy that he's been part of our group."
It's uncertain how much longer Smith will be in San Diego. In January, he signed a one-year, $4.5 million deal to avoid arbitration. He is eligible for free agency for the first time after this season and plans on pursuing the best offer. If he keeps up his current pace, he could sign a multi-year deal somewhere for good money.
As of now, Smith is still pretty much unknown on a national level. He is not even on the All-Star ballot, although National League manager Mike Matheny could always select him to his first All-Star game. He is determined to prove his fast start is no fluke.
"For the first time, I don't feel like I've been on a hot streak," Smith said. "I feel like this is just kind of how it is. If I get good pitches to hit and allow myself to be ready to hit 'em, hopefully I can keep it up."
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Tim Casey is a freelance sports writer and a former Sacramento Bee sports reporter. He works for HMP Communications, a health care/medical media company.