An Astros Prospect Overcomes Adversity Times Three

Ben Smith has a 21.21 ERA in three appearances for the Tri-City Valley Cats. All told, the 23-year-old southpaw has allowed 19 base-runners and 15 runs in 4.2 innings for Houston’s short-season affiliate.

There’s a lot more to his story than numbers.

Smith will be watching this week’s College World Series with interest. The school out of which he was drafted in 2014, Coastal Carolina, is a surprise participant in the championship round. Several of the Chanticleers are former teammates, and he expects to be “sneaking into the locker room a couple of times” each night to follow their fairy-tale quest for a title.

The fact that the lanky left-hander is playing baseball is a real-life success story of its own.

Smith had Tommy John surgery shortly before the Astros made him a 17th-round pick, but rehabbing his elbow hasn’t been his biggest obstacle. Last year, just as he getting ready to return to the mound, he fell ill and was taken to the emergency room.

“I was told I probably had cancer,” said Smith, who was ultimately diagnosed with Burkitt leukemia lymphoma. “They flew me out to Houston, where the doctor said it was very aggressive, but that it responds well to chemotherapy. It’s curable. I was going to recover and be able to play baseball again.”

Smith went through eight months of chemotherapy — he had his last round in January — and came to spring training ready to begin shaking off the rust. He hadn’t thrown a competitive pitch in two tumultuous years.

Then came an even bigger shock.

“My brother died about two months ago,” said Smith. “He took his own life. He was 20 years old and at college, and it was completely out of the blue. Nobody knew that anything was wrong. He just lived another life that we didn’t know about.”

Smith is soldiering on. But while he’s overcome a lot of adversity — “It’s definitely been a tough two years” — challenges remain. The mental and physical turmoil he’s experienced have taken a toll. Post-chemotherapy, there are still weight and stamina gains to be made. Pitching-wise, he needs to retain the comfort level he lost over his long layoff.

“Honestly, it feels like a completely new thing,” admitted Smith. “My first outings have been pretty bad. Part of me was expecting to go back out there and have everything happen like it did before, but that’s not realistic. It’s going to take me a little while to get the feel back, to feel like I’m at home again.”

Three times this month, Smith has walked off the mound having been hit hard. Three times, he’s done so with a perspective gleaned through life experiences that have been anything but easy.

“Having my health back and being able to play this game is a blessing,” said Smith. “Knowing what other people are going through every day, and having gone through some things myself, I definitely enjoy everything just a little more.”

We hoped you liked reading An Astros Prospect Overcomes Adversity Times Three by David Laurila!

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Wow. Cannot imagine dealing with all of that. Best of luck, Ben.