Sean Smith has said goodbye to baseball twice. But baseball won’t let him go.
Two years ago, the veteran independent league outfielder decided he was ready to retire. He missed his wife and they were expecting their first child.
So late in the season, Smith was already starting to mentally say his goodbyes. But on a late-season road trip with the York Revolution, he needed a haircut.
“I’m super picky about my hair,” Smith said.
Being particular, Smith wasn’t really thrilled that his best option was a barber shop in the mall. He was even less thrilled when he found he had to take a number.
The night before, Smith had prayed for a sign—something to help him decide whether he should give up baseball or keep going.
"Am I being selfish?" he said "At this point, I need a sign. I get in there and pull number 42. Oh that's kinda cool. No. 42. I'll keep this in my wallet."
Smith loves, admires and honors Jackie Robinson. As a black man and a baseball player, Smith knows how important Robinson’s breaking of baseball’s color line is. He named his son Robinson Smith in honor of the Dodgers' great.
So when he grabbed No. 42, he took it as a sign.
Eventually his number was called. He sat down in the seat, and as he started to talk to the barber, he asked an unusual question. “Are you from Georgia?” Smith asked.
The barber said he was, and he wondered how Smith would have known that.
“You sound like a friend of mine I used to play baseball with, Rico Washington,” Smith said.
The barber looked stunned, and said Washington was his first cousin. Before the haircut was over they were both exchanging photos of Washington from their cellphones.
Some might have viewed that as an amazing coincidence. But faith is a very strong part of Smith’s life. To him, it was a clear sign of a providential prodding. Baseball wasn’t done with him.
So Smith returned to baseball in 2014, and he was rewarded.
You might think Smith’s name sounds familiar, and it is because he’s one of the more famous independent league players because of what happened last September. In a playoff game, Smith hit a home run to tie the game in the ninth inning of York’s 3-2 win over Sugar Land
On the national stage, a key home run in an independent league game isn’t going to get noticed no matter how dramatic it is. But as Smith rounded first base, he took a bad step and tore his patellar tendon and crashed to the ground.
Smith stayed down for just a second. He could have been carried off and been replaced by a pinch runner to finish off the home run trot. But instead, he gathered himself, stood back up and slowly hopped on one leg around the bases.
Smith’s season was over. He was looking at a very painful winter of rehabbing. But as Smith described it, it was the best thing that has ever happened to him on a baseball field. He didn't really hear the crowd cheering until he rounded second. As he hopped to third and home, he was caught up in the moment.
There aren't many times in your life that you experience a moment that strikes you as significant. Usually, the significance of a passing experience is realized reflecting back on it days, months or years later.
Smith had two minutes of hopping/limping around the bases. It took a while, but that allowed him to savor it through the pain.
"Hopping around the bases, once I zoned back into what was happening, I got the moment then,” he said. “I got the moment. It happened fast but super slow. I remember everything vividly. I wouldn't change anything … I remember thinking, this is amazing. Minus my son being born. Minus him being born, this is the best moment of my life," Smith said.
Something about Smith’s determined hop around the bases caught the national public’s attention. The video went viral and aired on Good Morning America, SportsCenter and a variety of other national media. Six months later, it’s still Smith’s calling card as he works his way back to full health.
And it gave him the final sign he needed to decide that he has at least one more season to play. Even before he limped home, Smith was already pretty sure that he was coming back.
With his son’s first birthday coming up during the last road trip of the regular season and York already guaranteed a playoff spot, Smith asked for and received permission to skip the trip and head home to Chicago for his son’s birthday.
His wife talked him out of it. As she saw it, if Smith was ending his baseball career, they should all celebrate his last regular season road trip.
So the whole family ended up going to Sugar Land. Smith roamed the outfield like he has for years. And to honor Robinson's birthday, the family went to the Cheesecake Factory to celebrate.
Happy first birthday. Farewell to baseball.
And then the check came. The bill was for $42.00.
"No way. I had kept that 42 from 2013 (from the barber shop). 42 just kept popping up," Smith said.
You can go to restaurants for years without ever getting a bill that finishes to the dollar exactly. One could say that the odds are simply one in a hundred—although the chances of getting a bill that ends up exactly at Jackie Robinson’s number has to run much higher, right?
A year after Smith’s last providential sign, he wasn’t going to ignore this one.
Just a few days later, Smith limped through the biggest hit of his career, further cementing the decision to come back for 2015.
Smith is rehabbing his knee in Arizona. He hasn’t yet gotten the official clearance to return to full action, but the doctors say it’s coming. And when it does, he’ll return to the York outfield.
This looks like Smith’s last season. He’s planning to say goodbye and return to home to his family when the season’s over. But after two years, he’s learned to not guarantee anything. Who knows what will happen this September.