Barrington's Smith, Engle form a winning team

Barrington's Smith, Engle form a winning team
March 1, 2013, 10:15 am
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At 78, Kirby Smith still doesn't blink if someone throws a fastball at his chin. After retiring as Barrington's baseball coach after 22 years and over 500 victories, he still enjoys two hobbies -- teaching the art of hitting and writing a book on his favorite subject, the Civil War.

By his own admission, however, he hates banquets. "I don't like them at all. I don't consider myself a public speaker. Sometimes I'm not politically correct. I might blurt out an expletive deleted word. Sometimes I tell people what they don't want to hear."

But he will make a concession on Saturday. He will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at Barrington High School's annual Baseball Boosters Banquet at Concorde Banquets in Kildeer. His prize pupil, 14-year major leaguer Dan Wilson, will be keynote speaker.

[More: Barrington alum Wilson never took a called third strike]

Other former Barrington baseball coaches who will be honored at the event will be Jim Hawrysko, Dave Engle, Jim Larson and Ray Piagentini. Engle served as Smith's pitching coach from 1980 to 1998. "He was as much responsible for Barrington baseball as I was. I just got the recognition," Smith said.

Smith and Engle, who teamed up to win more than 1,600 games and eight state championships at the high school and American Legion levels, still work together at Professional Baseball Instruction of Illinois (PBI) in Barrington, which is owned by another of Smith's pupils, David Trautwein.

At Barrington, they won 539 games, a state championship in 1986, seconds in 1987 and 1988 and third in 1998. During one span, they won 23 games or more for 13 years in a row. Smith's expertise is hitting. His favorites were Ted Williams and Stan Musial. Engle's forte is pitching. His model was Tom Seaver, then Greg Maddux.

They got together by accident. Engle grew up in Freeport and pitched at the University of Illinois. Thanks to a recommendation by a professor at Southern Illinois, he took a job in the art department at Barrington in 1979. He wasn't looking for a coaching job. He wanted to teach art.

"But I had heard about Kirby Smith. His American Legion had finished third in the national tournament in 1979," Engle said. "One day, he appeared at my class. He said: 'I understand you have baseball experience. I need an assistant coach. Let's talk about it.' That's how it began.

"It was a nice match. His strength was hitting. Mine was pitching. He said: 'You do pitching and I'll do hitting and we'll punt on the defense.' He is an amazing guru of hitting. I know few people who study hitting more than he does."

Smith, who takes enormous pride in the fact that he has sent more than 100 players to Division I schools and 16 to professional baseball, including two (Wilson and John Trautwein) to the major leagues, agrees with Ted Williams oft-quoted assessment that hitting a baseball is the single most difficult thing to do in all of sports.

"When I was in high school, Williams was my guy," said Smith, a 1953 graduate of New Trier. "I went to Comiskey Park to see him play and take batting practice. When it hit, the baseball looked like a golf ball coming off his bat. He didn't take a stride. That was a factor in my starting to understand the center of gravity and balance in hitting."

His high school teammate, Chuck Lindstrom, son of Hall of Famer Fred Lindstrom, reminded him that, as a hitter, you must assume every pitch will be a strike until it becomes a ball or you hit it. "That's the key element. You have to assume you will hit," Smith said.

That's why, on two occasions, he deliberately sent two players to the plate without a bat in their hands. Why? Because they had committed the unpardonable sin, in Smith's view, of taking a called third strike with a runner in scoring position. How did they react? One walked, the other cried.

"That tells you something about my mindset," Smith said. "Hitting is a fascinating skill. You can do everything right and not get a hit, then do everything wrong and not make an out."

Smith teaches what he describes as "absolutes" -- what all players will do at a certain point in their swing. They are (1) front toe will be closed on every ball you swing at, (2) level hips and level shoulders and (3) track the ball.

He admits his philosophy might not be acceptable to administrators and parents today. In 1986, the year after Barrington won the state championship, the Broncos finished second. After accepting the runner-up trophy, Smith dropped it in a waste basket. If assistant coach Jim Larson hadn't retrieved it, the trophy probably wouldn't be in Barrington's trophy case today.

"Winning is the most fun I have in baseball," Smith said. "And I haven taken pride in the numerous kids who have gone on to play in college and professionally. I like to see my former players. I've gone to Nashville and Des Moines and even Yakima to see them play."

"The present-day administration might frown upon what I say. Now is now, not when you feel like it. Now can occur any time in a game, doing whatever it takes to drive in a critical run or make a key pitch in a game. When you are coaching, there is certain point in every game where the outcome will occur based on what happens in the next play or two. You can't identify it before the game starts. An outstanding play in the outfield is a now situation. Or a clutch hit in the bottom of the ninth. When will it occur? No one knows. It is a sense or feeling. Players who produce when it counts put a finger on it."

On this particular day, Smith was walking out the door on his way to PBI to give a hitting lesson to Jake Goebbert, a Hampshire, Ill., product who attended Northwestern and is headed for the Houston Astros' spring training camp. Goebbert's father played for Smith in 1980.

He also is putting the finishing touches on a book on his great-great grandfather, General John E. Smith, one of nine Civil War generals (including U.S. Grant) who came from Galena, Illinois. A longtime member of the Northern Illinois Civil War Roundtable in Arlington Heights, Smith has 300 pages of letters from his relative, who is credited with helping Grant to return to the Army. The book is due to be published in the spring.

Smith also has put together an extensive record book, documenting his 22 years at Barrington. He has accounted for every player who ever played for him. "Even if he was 0-for-1," he said.

"If you had to sum up his loves, they would be baseball, Civil War and (country music singer) Crystal Gayle, in that order," Wilson said. "One night, he missed an American Legion game because she was singing at Poplar Creek.

"He was such a stickler for the fundamentals of hitting. The fundamentals of hitting I learned from him stuck with me all through my career, like how to hit the other way to the gap in right-center. I wouldn't have been able to hit as well as I did without what he taught me."

Wilson, whom Smith called the best player and the best pitcher he ever produced, also praised Engle's pitching instruction: how to take care of your arm, exercises, developing shoulder strength, mechanics, mental approach. "He was before his time," Wilson said.

"When you put them together on a coaching staff, they were special. It is hard to learn the game at the big-league level. You have to be prepared. I was lucky to have a great high school and college experience before I got to the major leagues."

Engle, 62, who admits his knees and hips "are shot" but his arm "is the only sound thing on my body," threw batting practice to Goebbert two or three times a week. Unlike many modern-day pitching instructors, he advises young pitchers to throw every day. In his day, he never heard of a pitch count. He once threw both games of a doubleheader.

Today, Smith and Engle go to baseball games together and shake their heads in disbelief when they see the lack of proper fundamentals and mechanics being demonstrated on the field. "It goes back to poor practice habits," Engle said.

"I was working with four youth baseball teams at the PBI facility the other day. I was amazed at what I saw during the two hour-and-a-half sessions. I couldn't count the number of mechanical things that were being taught wrong. There were so many flaws. In one drill, an 11-year-old kid was throwing on one knee to a target about 90 feet away. The series of repetitions forced him to alter his throwing motion to do it, thus creating a bad habit."

Generally, however, Smith and Engle agree that coaching is better today than when they began playing and coaching the game. But they recommend that youth baseball coaches should attend more clinics to hone their teaching skills.

Like Smith, Engle taught "absolutes" of pitching -- fingers on top of the ball, throwing elbow up, best pitch is a strike, always work from 0-and-1. "But every pitcher has his own strengths and idiosyncrasies. I won't regiment them into my style. I don't want to get too complicated," Engle said.

"Kirby and I are definitely old-school coaches. We did things you don't do today or can't do. Kirby always told his players: 'The baseball team isn't a democracy, it is a dictatorship and you better get used to it.'

"My job was to interpret after he destroyed kids and they had tears in their eyes. I'd say this is what he really meant. 'He is on your butt a lot, right? You need to take that as a compliment because he sees good things in you. If he ignores you, watch out.' That's how we did it."

And it worked.

"Kirby's dedication to the baseball program at Barrington was awesome, the amount of time he put in with baseball and the field and all the things that went into the program," Dan Wilson summed up. "He devoted his life to it. We were all beneficiaries of it. I want him to understand how much we appreciated what he did."