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Published On: June 23rd, 2017

By Nathan DeSutter

Mequon, WI- Chinooks starting pitcher, Shane Smith, has always been drawn to baseball, and baseball, in its mystic “Field of Dreams” way, has whispered—through the loud, clanking machinery of his rustbelt, Cincinnati hometown—that it has a plan for him; he has a destiny. 

Smith was born into a family of four boys and was it wrestling and football, not baseball, that reigned supreme. He tried those out for a bit, but the suffocatingly hot gyms, constant need to manage weight, and injury risk turned him back to the diamond. Plus, baseball has always been his best sport, and even though it seemed odd to many, a simple last name change would make it obvious where his baseball DNA comes from.

Genetically, Smith is a Ruffing, a name that carries a lot of weight in the Ohio area because it stems from Charles “Red” Ruffing, Smith’s great-grandfather, and the famous ace pitcher of the golden age, murder’s row Yankees. 

Following his accomplished 22-year baseball career—Ruffing collected six all-star selections, six World Series titles, the honor of playing with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio, and plaques in Cooperstown and the famed Monument Park in Yankee Stadium—he moved to Ohio to raise a family and work for the Indians. 

Over the next two generations, there were multiple Ruffing's to achieve varying levels of prominence in the baseball ranks, but when it come’s to Shane Smith’s, fourth generation—cousins included—he stands alone as the only one to have real interest or success in the family’s hallowed heritage. 

But, honestly, Smith doesn't focus on it too much. In fact, the first time he ever heard of great-grandpa “Red” was when, as a 10-year-old on a trip to Cooperstown, it was casually mentioned to him. And, naturally, just as any other wide-eyed, baseball loving boy, was awestruck by the unique connection that he, to this day, still holds in high regard. But, Smith doesn't like to wield and wave it for increased attention. That, he says, stems from his family’s humble nature. 

Though, the connection might be more special than he initially thought, because when you start to do some research, it turns out there are some interesting correlations between Smith and Red. For example, they both have an over-the-head windup, high, pausing leg kick, and background as prolific corner outfielders before switching, full-time, to pitching. However, the oddest, and perhaps the most goosebump-inducing link to this whole story centers around one single pitch, the slider. 

For the last few weeks, Smith has been working on developing his slider, a pitch, growing up, he’d longingly desired to throw but had little success establishing.

“You can ask my college coach,” Smith said, “Because, when he was recruiting me he said, ‘You’ve got a really average slider.’” 

And, after a rocky start to his 2017 summer—he allowed seven runs, fourteen hits and only struck out three in his first ten innings—he decided average was no longer good enough. 

“My first two starts here, [the slider] really wasn’t doing much,” Smith said. “It was doing a lot of spinning, and I was getting that a lot in season too. I didn’t want to throw it that way [in my third start] against Green Bay.”

That’s when he approached Chinooks’ pitching coach Mike Frank who, during his four-year career at Bowling Green, was known for his dominant, self-taught slider that allowed him to register 221 strikeouts—just 11 shy of the all-time Falcon record—over 313 career innings.

“I asked him how he threw his slider,” Smith said.“Then, I threw a couple off the mound while he was watching me, showing me different things, and I said, ‘Alright, I’ll try it. If it doesn't work, it doesn't work.’”

This conversation was nearly the exact situation that played out 87 years ago, when great-grandpa Ruffing, who was relying almost entirely on his  "whistling" fastball, approached Yankee hurler George Uhle, to whom many baseball historians credit the invention of the modern-day slider. 

Up to that point, Ruffing, though listed as the ace pitcher of a lousy Red Sox team, was a completely replaceable, "in-and-out" MLB talent who owned a 39-96 record, 4.61 ERA, and averaged only 3.6 strikeouts per nine innings. And, that’s why, in 1930, the Sox had no mixed feelings about trading him for journeyman outfielder Cedric Durst and fifty-thousand dollars, only seven hundred and thirty-five thousand by today's standards. 

But, when Ruffing adopted this brand new, inventive “slider” or, as Uhle called it, a “nickel curve,” it quickly became an unmatched weapon that led him to 12 straight years of strikeout-laden dominance.  So much so, in some circles, he’s considered the father of the modern slider, and in others, the owner of the first great MLB slider. 

For his great-grandson, the transition wasn't quite as smooth. In fact, out of the gate, the new grip flat-out didn't work. In the top of the first inning against the Bullfrogs, Smith saw all three of the sliders he threw fly out of his hand and land well out of the zone.

"Some of them in the bullpen I wasn't throwing with the right arm angle, they were spinning," he said. "I wasn't throwing it as hard. Instead, I was just kinda flicking it up there."

But, all of a sudden, as he reached the middle innings, something clicked. Almost like he found his inner Ruffing. 

“I started feeling it,” he said. “Next thing you know, I was getting spin, getting movement, and about the fourth or fifth inning, started throwing it harder and was getting swings and misses. I think I struck four guys out on it.”

He finished the day with seven and two-third strong innings, giving up only six hits, one earned run and striking out seven in what was—by far—his best outing of the summer. 

He carried that momentum—and slider—into his next start against Battle Creek where, in his second outing of the season against the Bombers, he appeared to be a whole new pitcher after seven impressive innings allowing only six hits, one earned run and striking out five.

To put his success into perspective, over the course of his Miami-Ohio season, Smith only struck out 35 batters in 78 innings, an average of 4.03 strikeouts per nine innings. But, over his last 14.2 innings for the Chinooks, he’s stuck out 12, an average of 7.36 strikeouts per nine innings. On the all-time MLB scale, only 99 starting pitchers have ever had a career K/9 higher than 7.36.

"[His slider’s] a good strikeout pitch, it's really developed," said Smith's catcher, Nick Cheema. "It's a good fourth pitch he can throw for a strike and it works well with his curveball. It's a lot harder and sharper."

“It’s good, really good,” Smith said about the current state of his slider. “It’s not gonna be perfect right away; it’s something you gotta work on, and that's what summer ball is for. To throw good sliders, you need to throw bad ones. That’s how you learn.”

"If you think of hitters, a good hitter fails 70 percent of the time, but he’s still considered good. You can look at pitching the same way; you’re not gonna always throw a good slider," he said.

Despite the hype, his slider is far from the only reason for Smith’s recent success. His fastball, which sits in the mid-80’s, has featured pinpoint accuracy and his curve has both consistently gotten over for strikes and missed opposing bats. 

“The command was second to none,” Coach Frank said of his start against Green Bay. "He was pounding the zone–under 70 pitches in the sixth inning– getting contact early, getting his pitches hit, and, of course, solid defense behind him always helps."

However, Smith's greatest weapon might just be his confidence. "I’m a big confidence guy," he said. "And, if my confidence is up, hitters are in trouble."

Right now, it's clear hitters need to seek shelter as everything seems to be clicking for the Chinook righty, however, if destiny and the baseball gods have anything to say about it, his slider will be the weapon that takes him to the next level.