Champaign's Luke Smith is so much more than a few choice words

 

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READ: The time Luke Smith accompanied his cousin with autism to the prom

CHAMPAIGN — Sitting roughly 20 rows behind the Louisville dugout at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb., Tim Smith watched his son walk off the mound on Friday night.

Louisville pitcher Luke Smith had just struck out Vanderbilt first baseman Julian Infante to end the top of the eighth inning in a semifinal game at the College World Series.

The Cardinals held a precarious 2-1 lead, thanks in large part from a strong pitching performance by the Centennial graduate in front of 24,673 fans.

The 6-foot-3, 175-pound right-hander from Champaign was looking strong, with Infante his 10th strikeout of the night.

But before he made it into the Cardinals' third-base dugout, Smith let fly a few expletive words while staring in the direction of Infante.

At the moment, Tim Smith said he and 10 other family members who were in attendance didn't think much of it.

"We knew there was chirping going on from both sides," Tim Smith said Monday.

Watching in Champaign, Parkland baseball coach Jon Goebel realized ESPN cameras capturing his former pitcher's profane language, however, might become a big deal when he received a text message from his mom later that night and saw a few prominent Twitter accounts start to air the video clip.

The 10-second slow-motion replay ESPN showed of the exchange prompted an instant outcry — some in support of Smith's emotional outburst and some against his choice words — on social media.

"Pretty sure I just became a fan of any team this guy ever faces again," tweeted Randy Scott, an ESPN personality and SportsCenter anchor.

By Monday afternoon, more than 9 million views of Smith shouting three obscenities in particular had been seen on social media. With thousands of comments directed towards Smith.

"Luke made a mistake, and he has learned from it," Tim Smith said. "His mother and I don't condone it, but if you know Luke, there's a lot of good things about him."

'Game of emotion'

Smith was eventually saddled with the loss as Vanderbilt rallied for two runs in the top of the ninth to claim a 3-2 victory and end Louisville's season.

"I love that part of baseball," Smith told reporters after Friday night's game. "When they got their big hit in the ninth, they celebrate. That's how it goes. When I strike somebody out, I celebrate, and that's just the way it is."

Smith took to Twitter on Saturday morning to expand upon those thoughts and apologize for his language.

"As I noted (Friday) night, baseball is a game of emotion," Smith wrote. "But that does not excuse my offensive language during an exchange at the end of a late inning. It was inappropriate and I apologize to all. I have the utmost respect for my teammates and Vanderbilt."

Tim Smith said his son had a "great conversation" with Louisville coach Dan McDonnell after the game on Friday night and sought out Louisville athletic director Vince Tyra at the team hotel in Omaha later on Friday night, offering an apology to Tyra for his behavior.

"He knows he made a mistake," McDonnell told reporters on Monday. "He knows he crossed the line. He pitches with an edge. He plays with an edge. He's used to getting picked on. He's got a different look to him. He's skinny, he's got the glasses and he's used to hearing a lot of chatter. And he uses that to fuel himself. But, as we talked about, there's obviously a point where you cross the line and he knows he crossed the line."

'He does not back down'

Goebel has known Smith, an All-Area first-team selection by The News-Gazette in 2016 when he was a senior at Centennial, since Smith was 16 years old.

"Luke has always been ultra competitive and extremely confident," Goebel said. "He does not back down from anyone. He was extremely overlooked early on in recruiting. He keeps a chip on his shoulder, and it makes him who he is. His character should never come into question.

"His teammates and coaches absolutely love him. He is selfless. He always thinks about others and loves spreading the game of baseball amongst the youth. I know Luke's family. They are amazing people. I have three little girls at home. Luke is the type of guy you hope they bring to family dinner one day when they are older."

Tim Smith said Luke is back in Champaign this week before he returns to Louisville next month to begin offseason work after his impressive first season at Louisville.

After two seasons at Parkland, Smith enjoyed a successful first season with the Cardinals, finishing with a 6-1 record, 4.24 earned run average and 53 strikeouts for a program that finished 51-18.

"To his close family that was at the game, his outing was not a surprise to us," Tim Smith said. "When you throw four pitches for strikes, and with the way he's learned how to be a stronger athlete at Louisville through nutrition and weight training, it's really helped him hold his velocity late into the game."

Both of his postseason starts with Louisville saw Smith last 8 1 / 3 innings, with his first one against Illinois State on June 2 extending the Cardinals' season at the NCAA regional level in an elimination game. His last one produced noteworthy moments, too, despite 19 days elapsing between the time he pitched.

Goebel spoke briefly with Smith before and after his start on Friday night against Vanderbilt.

"We talked about just enjoying the arena and embracing how lucky he was to get a chance to compete in a setting like that," Goebel said. "Afterwards, obviously I knew he would be upset. I just told him I enjoyed watching how hard he competed and how proud I was of him. Luke is the ultimate team guy. I know it crushed him to fall short with those guys."

'He's holding up great'

But the 121 pitches he threw against Vanderbilt isn't what vaulted Smith into notoriety. It was his outburst and the accompanying video.

"The lessons are two-fold," Goebel said. "On one hand, you have to think big picture with millions of viewers, kids and casual fans watching. I know Luke would take it back if he could, and has apologized for the way it happened.

"But at the same time, it's a lesson to a lot of people about what athletics are like at the highest levels. I think at times people on the outside only see the shiny side of it. It is tough, man, and if you don't have a little mean streak in you, it will chew you up and spit you out."

Smith still has one season of eligibility left at Louisville and will likely head into the 2020 season as one of the Cardinals' top returning starters.

"They have a ton of talent down there, but he has a great chance to be a weekend arm next year," Goebel said. "In athletics at that level, no one cares about your feelings. He will have to produce again."

Smith will also do so under a microscope most likely, given his emotional outburst against Vanderbilt. Goebel isn't worried, though, about how Smith will respond from the situation.

"As far has any backlash, Luke will be fine," Goebel said. "He is an amazing person and teammate, and with that comes plenty of support. I know I am proud of the man he is and what he has been able to accomplish."

Tim Smith echoed that sentiment Monday when asked how his son has handled all the attention — good and bad — thrown his way in the last 72 hours.

"He got labeled a villain, but he's thrived on that his whole career," Tim Smith said. "He's holding up great. He's very strong mentally, and he's learned a valuable lesson."

Sports Editor

Matt Daniels is sports editor at The News-Gazette. His email is mdaniels@news-gazette.com.