The first thing Hamptons Collegiate League Coach Darryn Smith did when he met with his new Shelter Island Bucks team was give every player a beaded key ring from his native South Africa.
The gift evokes a tradition Darryn’s parents started when he was eight, before his first baseball tournament. For every tournament he played, they gave him something small and lucky. Darryn is 42 now, but he still believes in the power of the key ring to unlock good things.
Darryn was born and raised in Durban, South Africa. Three years ago, he sold his hardware business and moved his family to Cape Town, where he works in marketing. His wife Michele grew up in Pretoria and moved to Durban where the two became high school sweethearts. They have three children, Tyler, Brandon and Jordyn.
Baseball is a big deal in the Smith household. Darryn has played for the South Africa National Team since he was a boy and has been both a player and the coaching commissioner for his region of South Africa for almost 12 years. Tyler, 21, attends Grand View University in Iowa and is a sophomore infielder, playing shortstop for the Bucks this summer. Brandon will also attend Grand View this year. He’s a pitcher, like his dad. Jordyn, 11, is a pitcher. She’s spending the summer in Cape Town with her mother. Even Michele played softball in college.
“She holds us all together,” said Darryn of his wife. “She knows the game and she’ll let me know if we do something wrong.” Leaving home for the summer was “happy and sad. This is one of the longest times I’ve ever been away from Michele, but I was very excited to come.”
Asked by the Reporter not long after he was tapped to be Bucks head coach how a South African kid became a baseball player and coach, Darryn said he caught baseball fever at age six. “My family went down to watch my cousins play at a field next to the shopping mall in our home town,” he said. “From the first, I knew I had an aptitude for the game and was instantly hooked. At school we played a number of ball games, including soccer, but baseball has always been my passion.”
Darryn is currently the pitching coach of the South African senior national team, and an international scout, having just stepped off the mound himself as a pitcher and mainstay of the South Africa National Team. He competed in the first two World Baseball Classics in 2006 and 2009, an international tournament.
He became an Olympian when he pitched for South Africa at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney. “I get goosebumps again,” he said. “I couldn’t believe I’d put myself amongst these athletes in the best shape of their lives. At the opening ceremony, I was mingling with the best of the best.”
He pitched against the U.S. and struck out Pat Borders who went on to become one of just four players in baseball history to win a World Series — with the Toronto Blue Jays — and a gold medal in the Olympics.
“That’s a good memory,” Darryn said.
When he was invited to spring training by the Phillies, it was his first real exposure to Major League Baseball. The Phillies offered him a scouting contract and since then he has served as an international scout and coach, doing some work for the Dodgers and now with the Red Sox.
Although his full-time marketing job supports his family, Darryn is on a baseball field, coaching and scouting six or seven days a week. He hopes eventually to coach full-time in a high school or college.
His approach to coaching is grounded in educational practice. “Always teach the why,” he said. “If a kid knows the why, they’ll never forget it.” As a pitcher, Smith says he got his edge by closely observing hitters and learning what they do. He lived by the words of Warren Spahn: “Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing.”
Darryn believes there is a place in baseball for sabermetrics, but as a coach, he describes himself as intuitive. “I don’t only look at the number of hits a hitter has. I’ll look at how productive he is, his place in the line-up and if he can be productive there. For a pitcher, over and above command and control, I’ll look at a strike-out to base-on-balls ratio. We want 2-1 on that. We’ll look at ground ball outs to flyball outs. If we can get a pitcher to get ground ball outs at 2 to 1 in that ratio, that’s good.”
He tells his players, “leave the game in a better way than you found it,” and he applies that philosophy to himself as well. “I believe if you do that, you never stop learning. You will get better. Your kids will get better.”
What do you always have with you? As a young player before my first tournament my parents gave me a ‘Care Bear’ key ring with a four-leaf clover. I still have it.
Favorite place on Shelter Island? Wades Beach, which reminds me of a piece of land I bought on the West Coast of South Africa.
Favorite place not on Shelter Island? My 45-minute commute to work — within a 3K radius of my house are vineyards and a 15-minute view of Table Mountain, one of the seven wonders.
When was the last time you were elated? Coming here was a pretty good moment.
What exasperates you? If a player doesn’t hustle.
When was the last time you were afraid? I got apprehensive every time I got on the mound in an international game. Jitters, just before that first pitch.
Favorite movie or book? ‘The Rookie.’
Favorite food? A good steak.
Favorite person, living or dead, who is not a member of the family? Marc Moreau, my boss and president of the South African Baseball Union. He’s driven, focused and his integrity is unsurpassed.