'His competitiveness was unmatched'
A hard-throwing pitcher who moved from the Lone Star State at the beginning of his sophomore year of high school, Smithey earned the monikers, “The Texan Blazer” and “The Stubborn Texan” by the McMinnville yearbook staff, and both were very apropos. Former teammates said Smithey competed fiercely when he was pitching or playing basketball. They didn’t call him arrogant or cocky to disrespect, either. They said he was one of the greatest teammates because you knew he was always trying to win.
“When you were around him, I think he gave his other teammates confidence,” said Don Rutschman, who played baseball for a season with Smithey at Linfield.
After hours spent researching and peeling back the layers of Smithey’s exploits at McMinnville and Linfield College as a workhorse pitcher and free-shooting guard, a fascinating story emerges, pulled together by the great coaches he played for. Smithey played baseball at McMinnville High for Loyal “Scooter” Rich and basketball for Ben Schaad and Eldore Baisch. At Linfield, Smithey was part of Ted Wilson’s run-and-gun basketball teams that ran circles around opponents. On the diamond, Roy Helser — also Smithey’s uncle — was his coach for two years, and he was there for the very start of Ad Rutschman’s baseball coaching career at Linfield that included a national championship in 1971. You walk around Linfield’s campus, and Helser, Rutschman and Wilson all have things named after them.
For bringing a bit of Texas to the Pacific Northwest, scoring prodigious amounts of points in basketball and leaving a competitive legacy at McMinnville and Linfield, Smithey is one of five 2013 inductees into the McMinnville High School Sports Hall of Fame.
Born in Tulsa, Okla. in the early 1950s, Smithey lived in a few different places before his family settled in Houston, Texas. His father worked for an oil company and was transferred a lot, and the family spent time in Oklahoma and New York and Texas. In Houston, Smithey and his older brother, Pat, did what kids do when faced with warm, sunny weather almost year round.
“I was a kid, man,” Smithey said. “We could play ball outside all day. It was awesome. The weather was hot. All we did was play outside in the street. Things you don’t see kids doing anymore.”
Smithey took particularly to basketball and baseball, and in the summer of 1963, he was an all-star in the North Houston National Little League. He was picked, along with 13 other boys that were 11 and 12 years old to compete in a state tournament. If they won that, the team would be well on the path to qualifying for the Little League World Series, held annually in Williamsport, Pa.
During the district tournament in Texas, Smithey’s father suddenly passed away. A story about that North Houston team said Mr. Smithey was “an ardent baseball fan and could be found most any night at one of the Little League or Colt League fields.” Smithey’s mother, knowing that her husband would want Mike to pitch, let her son continue to play. Smithey won a crucial game that propelled the North Houston All-Stars to the state championship and eventually, the LLWS.
North Houston kept fighting through regional qualifying and made it to Williamsport. It was a whirlwind summer, Smithey said. It was one plane flight after another. North Houston lost its first game to Granada Hills of California, which ended winning the World Series in a heartbreaking, nine-inning game. Houston did win a consolation game vs. Monterrey, Mexico to finish 1-1.
Smithey said the surreal thing was people were asking for his autograph.
“When I was 12, I got treated like a rock star for a few days,” he said. “Everything has been downhill since, right?
A train ride to the Northwest
For the next couple of years, the Smithey’s remained in Texas. His mother, Marian, had roots in the Pacific Northwest, though, and soon made plans to move her kids to Oregon. Pat was signed to play basketball at Seattle University, and his sister was already at Linfield. Mike, just two days into his sophomore year of high school, was packed onto a train with Pat, and the pair headed north.
“It was an adventure,” Smithey said. “A great adventure.”
While his brother continued north, Smithey stayed the first few months of the fall of 1965 with his aunt and uncle — Dorothy and Roy Helser. They lived in a house on Linfield’s campus, and after his mother joined him in Oregon, the Smitheys continued to live in a house on campus that was just across the street from the old Riley Gym.
“I was always in that gym,” Smithey said.
Being the new kid in school with a funny Texan drawl, Smithey said it was tough to fit in at first, but he used sports to break the barrier. That first year, Smithey was a varsity reserve in basketball, practicing with Mac Hall of Famers Larry Rich and Bill Pleameau. The Grizzlies finished third that year.
“That’s the great thing about sports to me,” Smithey said. “Once you get between the lines or on the court, it doesn’t matter who you are. It’s all about competing.”
While Smithey’s basketball and baseball teams never reached the postseason in his junior or senior seasons, the Grizzlies still provided a lot of great moments. Smithey emerged as a gunner, a shooter in basketball that put up big scoring numbers.
“As my brother said, I never saw a shot I didn’t like,” Smithey said.
It’s true. The Grizzlies were fourth (11-7) in the TYV his junior year — 1966-67 — and he led the team in scoring with 372 points. He shot 164 more times than the second-highest scorer on the team, Doug Bean.
Paul Durham, the News-Register sports editor at the time, wrote the following in the winter of 1967:
“Some followers of the team ask: “Why does Smithey shoot so much? Wouldn’t the team be better if he cut down on his pumping? The answer is simple. Smithey is one of the very best shooters of a basketball of all the high school players in the state. In fact, he’s definite All-State material and a solid college prospect in spite of his size.”
The next year, when McMinnville finished 11-11 in basketball, Smithey took 552 shots, shot 157 free throws and averaged 24.4 points per game, which was second in the state behind Tigard scorer Ken Strand’s 27 per game average. Smithey was an all-state selection in 1967-68.
“I didn’t mind casting,” Smithey said with a grin. “Let’s put it that way.”
While Smithey enjoyed his green-light status on the hardwood, he said the most fun he’s ever had in any sport was when he was pitching. And he was good at it. He lettered his sophomore year, and along with Dennis Draper — a great left-handed pitcher for the Grizzlies — the Grizzlies had two starting pitchers that were tough to beat.
“To think we couldn’t win a state championship with those two throwing for us is beyond belief,” said Perry Stubberfield, who was an assistant coach for the baseball team at the time.
Draper said Smithey was always a good teammate and a lot of fun to be around.
“He was a heck of a good ball player,” Draper said, though he did reveal Smithey perhaps earned some of his feisty nicknames because of his penchant to argue with umpires.
Halfway through his junior season on April 11, 1967, Smithey threw a no-hitter vs. Forest Grove. He walked two batters, another reached by an error, but of the 21 batters he faced in that 5-0 win, he struck out 15. Behind the arms of Draper and Smithey, Mac finished 1967 in second place in the TYV at 9-4.
Smithey’s senior year was much of the same as his junior year at McMinnville. By then, Pat had transferred to Linfield, where he was playing basketball. In Smithey’s first game of the season vs. Sunset — a 65-64 win — he scored 28 points. He continued to pump in the numbers, including a stretch in February where he scored 36 points vs. Newberg on Feb. 6, 1968 and then 38 vs. Dallas three nights later.
The Smithey brothers were so good that season that it caused havoc on their mother. Durham wrote a column about Marian Smithey trying to see both of her son’s games Feb. 6 when Mac and Linfield were at home. She chose to go to the first half of the Linfield game. She watched Pat sit on the bench for most of the half in foul trouble. Meanwhile at the high school, Mike was torching Newberg for 30 first-half points. When Marian made it to the high school for the second half, Mike was relegated to the bench because of Mac’s big lead, and subsequently, Pat scored 15 points in the second half for the Wildcats.
“So,” Durham wrote, “Marian Smithey had quite the dull evening.”
That spring, Draper and Smithey picked up where they left off their junior year. Continuing a trend of beating up on Newberg, Smithey struck out 18 Tigers in a game halfway through the season. By the midpoint of the season, Draper was 3-0 with a 0.66 ERA and Smithey was 2-0 with a 0.63 ERA.
“Really, he was just a skinny kid,” Stubberfield said. “It always amazed me how hard he could throw the ball.”
Said Smithey: “Wasn’t much to it. I just threw as hard as I possibly could.”
The Grizzlies ended up missing the playoffs in 1968, not without a little controversy. They lost to Tigard in the last game of the regular season (Smithey struck out 11 but lost 2-1), and despite the Tigers still needing to play a makeup game vs. Oregon City, a three-member committee said Tigard didn’t need to play it and crowned the Tigers TYV champions.
Draper and Smithey finished their senior seasons 7-0 and 4-2 respectively. Draper had a 1.16 ERA. Smithey struck out 62 batters in 39 2/3 innings and had a 0.52 ERA.
Still living on campus at Linfield, Smithey decided to play basketball and baseball for the Wildcats after a brief flirtation with the University of Oregon, he said. Soon, he learned the true meaning of discipline, playing for Ted Wilson.
“I have never been in better shape in my life,” Smithey said. “You looked up in the last three minutes of the game, and the other guys are going to have their hands on their knees and they’ll be turning red.
“It was really fun. Just running and gunning and pressing.”
Smithey averaged 15.4 points a game his junior year and 14.7 his senior year. The Wildcats were 11-14 and 14-12 those two seasons, though, in Smithey’s freshman and sophomore seasons Linfield qualified for the NAIA Tournament.
It’s on the baseball field where Smithey’s true legacy at Linfield is. In 1970, the Wildcats won the conference. The following year, Linfield went 28-11, won eight of their final nine games and won the NAIA national championship under first-year coach Ad Rutschman.
Smithey had a 2.55 ERA in 1971, was 8-4 as a starting pitcher and threw 91 innings — the most on the team.
“That whole pitching staff relished competition,” said current Linfield Athletic Director Scott Carnahan, who played football for Linfield at the time and became Smithey’s teammate in 1972 on the baseball team. “Mike had a toughness about him that made him good.”
Others saw it too. Don Rutschman was a freshman in 1972 and tells stories of working with Smithey on a landscaping crew one summer. During their shift they would play stick ball with pinecones.
“If there is anybody that I ever met that had a little exposure or cockiness, it was Mike Smithey,” Rutschman said. “Cocky, a little arrogant, but he could back it up.”
It seems that toughness was genetic, because one of Smithey’s favorite memories is when Pat stood up for him at the end of a Linfield-Willamette basketball game in 1969 that turned heated. Always the protective, older brother. Pat is now retired from a long career working for Bonneville Power, and the two brothers meet once a month or so for breakfast in Portland, where they both live.
“He was always my hero growing up,” Smithey said.
Mike Smithey is now 62 years old, but his hair is still close-cut, almost as if he’s still worried Coach Wilson will cut him from the team if he lets it grow out too long. He works for a general contractor as a project manager. He’s been in the construction business for 30 years, though it took him a bit to find what career he wanted to do. There were the two years he spent teaching at Rainier High School and then a stint at Milwaukie before moving to the U.S. Virgin Islands.
There was also a brief flirtation with the Major Leagues in the form of a spring training tryout with the Atlanta Braves. Hank Aaron was the manager then, and he personally told Smithey he was cut. Needless to say, the “Stubborn Texan” had a few words for Mr. Aaron.
Smithey has been married to his second wife for 22 years, and the couple has a daughter, Taylor, that is 21 and attending the University of Oregon. He has two daughters from a previous relationship — Mandy, 39, Maggie, 36 — and there are six grandkids running around.
Mike Smithey still has some of the competitiveness flowing in his heart. After walking down memory lane for the better part of an hour, he says, “If they would give me another year of eligibility, I’d get right back out there.”
Carnahan shuts the book on Smithey thusly:
“You can sum Mike up by saying his competitiveness was unmatched.”