The Senior Statesman Of The Appy League
If terrible throws were a measured statistic, Ray Smith said he would have led the free world in 1977.
Smith, then a shortstop prospect for the Twins, was unpredictable with the ball, sometimes even sailing it to fans behind the first-base dugout. And after watching one too many seat-rattling throws, his coaches sent Smith to the club's Rookie-level team in Elizabethton, Tenn., hoping he could learn to play catcher.
The move worked.
Smith fell in love with the town and made it home following a 10-year career crouching behind the plate. He thought Elizabethton would be a good place to raise his daughter, Hannah Lily, so Smith took the E-Twins' coaching job in 1987 and he and his wife moved from San Marina, Calif.
"I don't make a whole lot of good decisions," Smith said, "but that was one of them."
In his 23 seasons with the Elizabethton Twins, Smith has become the Appalachian League's most decorated—and by far most seasoned—skipper. Smith has been named manager of the year six times. For perspective, Danville's Paul Runge is the Appalachian League's second-most experienced manager—totaling six years with the Braves.
The other eight league managers? A combined 14 seasons.
The Appalachian League has been a place where coaches come and go, many on their way to higher-level gigs. But Smith has stayed to raise his family.
Because the Appalachian League only runs from June to September, Smith found other jobs in town. He was the city's parks and recreation director until 1997, when he became the athletic director at Milligan College.
The Twins are operated by the town of Elizabethton, so he also served as the club's general manager when he served as parks and recreation director. Smith would sell ads and make sure the stadium was clean before coaching his team in the afternoon.
Smith is not the only consistent face for the Twins. Jeff Reed has served as Elizabethton's batting coach for nine seasons and Jim Shellenback has worked with the team's pitchers since 1995.
Smith, Reed and Shellenback have guided the Twins to four Appalachian League championships over the past eight years. The trio also helped kick-start the professional careers of franchise cornerstones like Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau.
"They're energetic students of the game," Twins farm director Jim Rantz said of the Elizabethton staff. "They love the game and they won't let anybody outwork them. We have no desire to change anything."
Smith knew he wanted to coach shortly after December 1986. Months after retiring as a player, he joined former big leaguer Rusty Kuntz working at UPS. But after delivering packages during the holidays, Smith and Kuntz wanted out.
"We were smoked," Smith said. "Rusty turned to me and said, 'In two weeks, I'm going to be working in baseball.' He made some calls and he was gone. Soon after, I was gone too."
Several Twins coaches and former farm director George Brophy encouraged Smith to become a manager. While other clubs use the Appalachian League as a proving ground for managers, the Twins rely on Smith, Reed and Shellenback because they know how to work with teenagers.
"This is a starting point. Patience is a must," Rantz said. "They're coming to a strange city and don't know anybody. Ray and them do a good job helping (the rookies) along."
Smith gives his players the same speech before each season, telling them that at least one person in the room will reach the majors, and the biggest separator will be work ethic. He said he enjoys trying to get each player to reach his potential.
"It's not easy when you've been a big fish in a small pond and all of a sudden you're in a pond full of big fish," Smith said of players' early adjustment. "You look around, and you realize, 'Wow, these kids can really play.' "
Of the players on Minnesota's 40-man roster, 16 started in Elizabethton.
Smith said his staff keeps training simple, putting players through fundamental defensive drills every day until good mechanics become second nature. Shellenback avoids changing pitchers' arm slots or pitching sequences because most players don't want to alter their approach until they stop succeeding.
"You have to let them fail before they are willing to make changes," Shellenback said.
While practices are far from exotic, Smith said first-year players respect a staff with a proven track record, and the coaches have team photos with Mauer and Morneau as evidence.
"We expect to compete for championships," said Smith, who has won 665 games with the Twins. "We've been doing the same things for so many years and been successful enough that we know how to develop talent."
Smith added that he has thought about progressing to a full-time job with the organization as opposed to merely working in the short-season league. Hannah Lily, 22, just graduated from Milligan, leaving Smith open to a change.
"I'm a Twins guy forever," he said. "Whatever they want me to do, I'd be interested."