April 15, 2024

Cade Smith dazzles in Guardians debut after week of limbo and year away from family

OAKLAND — Tim Smith wants it known that he didn’t cry. There is no crying in baseball, he stresses, as he wipes away tears.

Tim hadn’t seen his son in a year, not since the serious heart surgery and not since Cade Smith planted himself on the Cleveland Guardians’ radar. Until Tim stood beside Cade on Wednesday, between the Opening Day logo and the first-base line at the Oakland Coliseum, a reunion felt elusive.

Cade couldn’t travel home to British Columbia. Tim couldn’t travel at all. Neither was certain he’d be in Oakland for the Guardians’ season opener.

Cade needed approval from the Guardians’ front office. Tim needed approval from his cardiologist.

On Wednesday, they reconvened on a major-league field. On Saturday, with his parents and siblings sitting 13 rows behind the visitors dugout during the Guardians’ 12-3 triumph over the Athletics, Cade delivered a debut to remember.

“The things that fell into place are crazy,” Tim says.

The Guardians shared their plan for Cade five days before the season opener. He would occupy the last spot in the bullpen as long as they didn’t scoop up a reliever cut by another team at the end of camp. It wasn’t an indictment on Cade, who submitted an impressive spring and, no matter his Opening Day assignment, figured to contribute to the big-league pen throughout the year.

Cade Smith struck out five over two scoreless innings in his major-league debut. (Russell Lee / Cleveland Guardians)

Cleveland’s bullpen, though, was decimated by injuries this spring and Cade could offer the club some flexibility as a member of the 40-man roster with minor-league options.

He would travel with the team to Oakland as they scoured the waiver wire. He insisted the roster purgatory didn’t leave him feeling anxious. It was out of his control, and manager Stephen Vogt provided him daily updates, even if the news was a lack of news.

Until the club officially finalized its 26-man roster on Thursday morning, as Cade played cards with his siblings, he couldn’t be 100 percent certain he would start the season in the majors. Cade shrugged off the five days of roster limbo, but Tim described the lack of clarity as “nerve-racking.”

The Smith family booked flights to Oakland, too, but Tim didn’t gain clearance to travel until Tuesday afternoon. Cade’s parents intended to visit him last August in Columbus, where he was pitching for the Guardians’ Triple-A affiliate. But when Tim went to the doctor in July, he was urged to meet with a heart specialist, and since landing an appointment proved challenging, they had to axe their trip to see their son pitch.

Tim spent the first week of September undergoing hospital tests. On Dec. 19, he had open-heart surgery. Doctors shifted his pulmonary valve to his aortic side and installed another pulmonary valve from a donor. He spent five days in the ICU and another five in recovery at the hospital.

Three months later, there’s still some healing to complete. Tim has visions of golfing and coaching basketball. First, though, he wanted to watch his oldest son pump 96-mph fastballs past overmatched big leaguers.

As Opening Day approached, Tim waited for the green light. His doctor met with him on his lunch break on Tuesday and granted him approval to join his wife and children on the Wednesday morning flight to the Bay Area.

The Smiths hail from Abbotsford, British Columbia, about an hour outside of Vancouver. Cade spent his falls, winters and springs indoors to avoid the steady rain and snow. He aimed to escape the elements and attend a warm-weather school, somewhere he could pitch year-round. He received only one scholarship offer, from The University of Hawai’i at Manoa, a perfect match.

Cade went unselected in the 2020 draft, which was shortened to five rounds because of the pandemic. He ultimately caught on with Cleveland and started his climb through the system. He enjoyed a breakout season in 2022, when he tallied 99 strikeouts and logged a 2.93 ERA in 61 1/3 innings at High-A Lake County and Double-A Akron.

That December, he applied to become a U.S. citizen. He was prohibited from leaving the country as he fulfilled his residency requirements. No trips home. No Christmas visit to snowy Abbotsford. No stops at the hospital to check in on his dad. No better means of communicating with his family than a FaceTime call.

That made their convergence at the Coliseum all the more emotional. Well, for Tim, at least. Cade referenced how grateful he was to have his family in attendance, but he couldn’t have been more matter-of-fact about his major-league debut, downplaying his jitters and saying, simply, how it was “super fun just to be out there and be on the ballfield.”

“I didn’t know if I was going to see him,” Tim says. “He’s worked so hard. The organization believed in him. Opening Day, are you kidding me?”

After watching the Guardians’ first two wins from a chair near the visitors’ bullpen in foul territory in right field, Cade entered in the bottom of the sixth on Saturday, backed by a comfortable Guardians lead.

He struck out the first batter, Nick Allen, and his parents rose out of their forest-green seats. Tim, wearing a gray Smith jersey over a navy sweatshirt, raised his right arm and pumped his fist. Another strikeout, another standing ovation from the most avid Cade Smith supporters in the building. Then another strikeout. And another, and another.

Cade’s five strikeouts set a franchise record for a pitcher in a debut that spanned no more than two innings.

“He showed us why he earned his spot here,” Vogt said.

Cade spotted his family in their seats on the first-base side. He wasn’t stumped when asked who in the group would be most emotional about the achievement.

“Probably my dad,” he said.

No one could blame Tim or any member of the Smith family for shedding a tear after a yearlong journey and a week of uncertainty culminated in an unforgettable reunion on the field and a dominant outing on the mound.

The Smiths will fly back to Vancouver on Sunday. They’ll pick up Cade’s grandmothers on Monday and make the 2 1/2-hour trek to Seattle for the next series, with no travel restrictions standing in the way of watching their favorite big-league reliever.

“I was extremely emotional,” Tim said. “Just a whirlwind. Not expecting to be here. Not knowing where he would be. It’s been crazy.”

(Top photo: Russell Lee / Cleveland Guardians)