Todd Schwartz 2016-07-25 17:18:13
His father nearly topped the charts with “Little Green Apples,” and today Robert Smith has huge plans to make the world better. The pitcher holds the ball, turns it in his hand, feeling the white cowhide for the perfect grip across the red stitches. Sixty feet, six inches away, the catcher punches his fist rhythmically into his glove. The sound makes a small echo. As he goes into his motion, the left-handed pitcher’s right knee comes up and across, elbow goes back, shoulders turn. Then, the pitch is away. The ball slaps in the catcher’s glove, a little high and a little outside. Not bad, when you consider that the pitcher has been blind since shortly after birth. Star Baby When Robert F. Smith was born, in 1968, his dad was having a pretty good year. O.C. Smith’s recording of “Little Green Apples” was climbing to number two on the Billboard Hot 100 and was well on the way to selling a million copies. It would win the 1969 Grammy Award for Song of the Year. The singer was out on the road when he got word that the son he and his wife were expecting sometime in August had been born in June, some eight weeks premature. He cancelled his concert and headed home. The neonatal technology of the day offered Robert’s parents few options. Time in an incubator would likely save the baby’s brain, but his eyes were another story. As it turned out, he would be blind. As it turned out, that wouldn’t slow him down very much. By age 5 he was racing fearlessly down the hill on his Big Wheel—including the time he went past the end of the driveway and did a hook slide right under a truck and out the other side. The famous laps he was bounced on as a child included those of the Rat Pack, Ike and Tina Turner, Ray Charles, Rosey Grier and Stevie Wonder. The silver spoon was taken from his mouth somewhat after his mother was divorced from O.C. Smith when Robert was 7 years old. The family moved from the Los Angeles hills to the inner city, and the younger Smith began to experience some new sides of life. No matter where he was on the arc from Sinatra’s lap to public housing and selling magazines on the Long Beach Pier, Smith never lost his positive attitude or his forward momentum. He inherited his singing voice from his dad, along with a love of people, and usually had a tune on his lips. He also did some acting as a kid, and in 1984 he had a small part in the movie “Mask.” In one scene he pitched a baseball. He’d always loved baseball—Smith was a big Dodgers fan, so it was a great scene to film. Little did he know it would be three decades before he would pitch again. A Three-Year Quest There are more than 200 major and minor league baseball parks in America—30 gleaming stadiums for the major leaguers of “The Show,” and some 180 not-always-so-shiny ballparks where minor leaguers work their way up and down the ranks. It’s a long way from the bright lights and $18 beers of Yankee Stadium to, say, L. P. Frans Stadium in Hickory, North Carolina. But no matter—on a warm summer night 5,092 happy folks can grab a seat and watch the Hickory Crawdads swing for the fences. Maybe one evening soon the good fans of Hickory will also watch a confident blind man sing the national anthem, then make his way to the mound and throw out the first pitch. Same for every major and minor league ball field in the country. The man, of course, will be Robert F. Smith. And his Little Green Apples Project (littlegreenapplesproject.com) will be the reason. “I’m on a three-year quest,” Smith says, “to sing the national anthem and throw out the first pitch at every major league and minor league ballpark in America. Why? To inspire people around the nation and the world to join together in doing 1 million acts of intentional kindness. Here’s my mantra: Even a blind man can see that one act of kindness can make the world a better place. That better world begins with you and me and everyone who does something good for someone else.” Smith is in the initial stages of his kindness campaign. His plan is to have people post their acts of kindness to his website. Beyond encouraging kindness, Smith is also determined to demonstrate to people with physical challenges that many things are possible beyond what they imagine. Why can’t a blind man pitch a baseball? Why can’t a blind man drive a NASCAR racing car (another of Smith’s goals)? Why can’t a blind man be an entrepreneur? All it takes is a little help from his friends. “It’s about us, not me,” Smith adds. “But if what I do and how I live can touch someone and show them that limitations can be overcome, then this has value. The Little Green Apples Project is our way of spreading that idea wide. How do people get involved? Just do something kind. An intentional act of kindness can change everything—Lion Gene proved that to me. None of this would have been possible without him.” Lion Gene Eighty-six-year-old Gene Johnson, a Lion for 35 years, is just off the golf course after 18 holes, and eager to talk about Robert Smith. “I came into contact with Robert through his agent here in Long Beach,” Johnson says. “Robert’s a fine young man, with a strong drive and quality about him. He wants to become self-supporting and to help other people facing challenges, and that resonated with me. So I’ve tried to do what I can to help him reach his goals.” Johnson, a past-president of the Long Beach Downtown Lions Club in California and a board member of the Lions Sight and Hearing Foundation of Southern California, pitched in—pun intended—in a big way. From helping Smith work to develop a revenue stream (a product, the Toss’n Towel Game Towel, a printed beach towel used in a beanbag tossing game) to finding him a pitching coach, Johnson has stepped up with both time and financial resources. “Lion Gene has been incredible,” says Owen Burgess, Smith’s agent at the Ability Talent Agency. “He has been a huge help in so many ways—he represents everything the Lions stand for and all the good they do.” “I can’t thank Lion Gene enough,” Smith adds. “When I first started this idea of throwing out the first pitch across the country, I was discouraged because I couldn’t throw a ball 15 feet anymore. Lion Gene found me a coach, and we went to work. We’d practice in sets of 20 pitches and after a few months I was averaging 16 strikes in each set!” Businessman and longtime Little League coach Matt Simon worked with Smith several times per week over the summer of 2015. “We went step-by-step, motion by motion,” Simon remembers. “It wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be! The catcher slaps his mitt and chants, and Robert throws at the sound. It’s great—he’s a good guy and you want to see him be successful.” Smith’s singing comes much easier, since he’s been doing it all his life. He recently remastered and re-recorded “Little Green Apples” to honor his father, who passed away in 2001. Again, Lion Gene was, you could say, instrumental, helping raise the funds to buy studio time for the effort. “Not a lot of babies,” Smith says, “have O.C. Smith singing to them in the womb, so I guess I just came out musical. I love singing the national anthem, but really that song isn’t the easiest thing in the world to perform.” ‘Even a blind man can see that one act of kindness can make the world a better place.’ Where else would Smith visit but the Field of Dreams site in Iowa? Especially when you’re singing it in the middle of 63,000-seat O.co Coliseum, home of the Oakland Athletics, as Smith did last August. “You have to sing it fast in a ballpark,” laughs Smith. “I sing it in one minute and 17 seconds. And there’s a delay on the mike, so you sing and then you hear what you just sang boomin’ on the sound system. You have to concentrate! But for me, fear can be fuel.” That fuel keeps Smith—who, as is his plan, will very likely be the first blind person to steer a NASCAR race car around the track (with a sighted co-driver, of course)— moving, promoting, inspiring—and pitching, in every sense. “I want to be an entrepreneur,” he says, “not just a blind entrepreneur. A majority of blind people are unemployed. Why is that? I’d like to start an entrepreneurship workshop for the disabled. Everyone, including people facing physical challenges, can do and accomplish much more than they think. It just takes some inspiration, some help, and an intentional act of kindness along the way. So that’s why the Little Green Apples Project is going to inspire a million of them. That’s what I want people to take away from this—get involved by doing something kind. Just like Lion Gene. He made a huge difference for me.” Lion Gene Johnson stepped up to the plate in supporting Smith. For his part, Johnson and his fellow Lions are eager to do their part for Smith—who is also eager to speak to Lions clubs and work more with Lions as he makes his way around the country. “It’s clear to me,” Johnson says, “that it’s a vital part of the Lions mission to inspire individuals with challenges to take charge of their lives. Opportunities are there, and we need to do more to find and expand them. Robert is and can continue to be a very inspirational person for the disabled and for kids in our multicultural society. I would like to see Lions clubs sponsor him as he travels to ballparks, and he can perhaps help those clubs with a local fundraising event.” So there’s the pitch. A million acts of kindness and a good man who happens to be blind and a baseball spinning through a warm, blue-sky day in a ball park in a town near you. Just be aware if you go to see Robert Smith when he makes it to Victory Field to throw out the first pitch for the Indianapolis Indians. We hear they can get a few rain-outs there. You know, as the hit song says, in the summertime… Based in Oregon, writer Todd Schwartz may not be a big baseball fan but, like Crash Davis, believes there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter. Extra Digital Content Enthusiastic and personable, Robert Smith describes his ballpark dream in a short video.
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