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IU's Smith and Smith share Father's Day opportunity

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Indiana vs. Louisville, tonight, 8, College World Series.
TV: ESPN

Hoosiers begin College World Series baseball quest

Monday, June 17, 2013 - 12:15 am

BLOOMINGTON -- Sometimes love means fighting and screaming, working and sharing, demanding and achieving.

You'd better believe Tracy and Casey Smith understand this.

Tracy is the coach -- “Skip” to those who play for him -- of what has become a Hoosier baseball juggernaut. Casey is the son who went from target-practice pitcher to outfield afterthought to left field starter.

Tonight they will join forces to continue Indiana's national title quest when the Hoosiers (48-14) face Louisville (51-12) in a College World Series opener in Omaha.

It seems a fairy tale moment -- a Father's Day weekend opportunity shared on a national stage with once-in-a-lifetime stakes.

Except ….

In this father-coaching-son reality script, Tracy pushed hard and Casey pushed back harder. They loved each other. They didn't like each other. At one point last season, Casey had enough. He cleared out his locker, strode into his father's office and quit the team.

“I was under a magnifying glass,” Casey says. “I just walked into his office, put up my stuff and said, 'I can't do it.' ”

Tracy convinced him he could, and both are reaping the rewards.

“It's been better this year,” Tracy says from his spacious Bart Kaufman Field office. “He's been fighting injuries. He's been fighting lack of success. He's been fighting me.”

Tracy smiles at his desk.

“He finally listened to me.”

Now they fight together against a Louisville team that once owned the Hoosiers before they turned things around by winning two of three meetings this season. They are five victories -- six if they need to win via the loser's bracket in this eight-team, double-elimination event -- from a national championship no one predicted.

“I don't get emotional, but I start to when I think about how cool this is,” Tracy says. “To be sharing Father's Day weekend in Omaha with your kid -- not in the seats, but participating in it. I don't know how it could be better.”

The coolest thing

Casey reclines in Bart Kaufman Field's state-of-the-art dugout to die for. A hot, humid wind drives dense clouds that mute the late afternoon sunshine, but not Hoosier optimism.

No matter what happens, Casey will remember this time for the rest of his life. How could he not? The redshirt junior is hitting .309 with five home runs and 33 runs batted it. He bats seventh in a potent lineup that has scored twice as many runs as its opponents (428-214). And then there's this College World Series opportunity with guys more like brothers than teammates.

“This is one of the coolest things,” Casey says. “I know my dad and he knows these guys so well. We share that father figure. Skip is the father figure. He yells at them when they make a bad play like he yelled at me when I didn't make my bed when I was little.

“These guys are always there for me. I know where they're coming from. They know where I'm coming from. That's special, the unity we have.”

Casey is 6-1 and 200 pounds. He is athletic enough to have thrown the javelin for IU's nationally ranked track team last year after a foot injury forced him to miss the baseball season. He was good enough to finish second in a couple of meets (with a personal best of 168 feet, 11 inches), unlucky enough to tear a ligament in his elbow that required Tommy John surgery to fix.

Few predicted this breakthrough season. Casey had been a bust as a pitcher and as a hitter. He'd been suspended for three games at the start of this season for his participation in a brawl with Purdue during last year's Big Ten tourney title game. He was coming back from injury.

“He wasn't a big thought for us in the fall,” Tracy says. “But he'd gotten stronger and bigger. He played himself into it by what he was doing in practice. He was hitting balls farther than his competitors. He kept making plays. He had athleticism.”

The year away from baseball, and the rehab from an elbow injury that once ended baseball careers, had left Casey focused as never before.

“Sitting out last year and realizing this could be it, that this was serious surgery, you think, hey, it's over. What would I do over if I could come back? That's what I did. I changed. It's the new me.”

The new Casey pushed himself forward instead of pushing back against his father.

“I thought, I'm a redshirt junior. This is my team. I need to do it. I need to play. I told myself that. I'm not going to ride the bench. I'm going to play and make it my team. Play the best I can.”

And so he has.

Lesson learned

Tracy isn't afraid to think outside the box. He set up a baseball trip to the Dominican Republic over last Thanksgiving break, as much for team bonding as improved play. He puts his best hitter -- All-America catcher Kyle Schwarber -- No. 2 in the lineup rather than the conventional No. 3 because it gives Schwarber extra at bats.

Tracy had a pitching need as the 2010 season loomed after four pitchers from the 2009 Big Ten tourney title team were drafted by Major League organizations. Casey had been a good, but not great, pitcher/shortstop for Bloomington North High School, but no major schools were recruiting him. He thought about playing for Army and becoming a military officer.

Tracy convinced Casey to graduate early and join the Hoosiers for what would have been the spring semester of his high school senior year. He did and it turned into an athletic disaster. He pitched in 18 games, with three starts and compiled a 13.67 earned run average. Opposing batters hit .360 against him.

“He wasn't physically ready or mentally ready for the college game,” Tracy says. “In hindsight, it was probably the worst thing that could have happened to him from a playing standpoint.

“This can be an unforgiving league. You'll get knocked down. He got knocked down. I don't know if it rattled his confidence, but he got it handed to him his first year.”

Adds Casey: “I don't regret any of it. I was thrown into the fire. I got burned, but I learned. I wanted to do it. I was really excited to start college. I had senioritis in high school. We all wanted to go to college as fast as we could. It was fun, but it was tough. I don't regret it, especially now.”

Casey's second year went better. He was 1-0 with a 4.50 ERA as a relief pitcher. He also was a reserve outfielder and hit .196 with four runs batted in.

“He could always swing the bat,” Tracy says. “To get his mind off the pitching we put him out there.”

Along the way were the typical clashes between a coach demanding ever more from a player. The father-son scenario ratcheted up the intensity. Tracy admits to being hard on his son. Casey says he had few family outlets to turn to.

“That was the hardest part,” he says. “I'd have a bad game or a bad practice, and I had to wear it. I couldn't talk to my father. He's the coach. I couldn't call my mom. That's the coach's wife. None of my teammates want to hear it. I've internalized a lot of things. Two years ago I couldn't handle it, and it showed. This year I've learned to deal with it.

“I have my outlets. I know what to do when I'm going through a rough patch. My grandparents are pretty good, but for the most part, it's on me.”

In that end, that's how it should be.