Niagara Gazette

July 15, 2013

Base Paths: Smith chases dream into Quebec

By DOUG SMITH
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — “You sort of learn to eat in the same spots,” says Jonny Smith, alumnus of Niagara-Wheatfield High, hardly gourmet central. “And it helps to be very polite.”

That’s life making a living in a foreign land, as is Jonny Smith, outfielder for the Les Troix Riviers Aigles (Eagles) of Quebec in the independent Canadian-American League. In any language Jonny Smith has nested well. He has 12 home runs and last week broke up a game with a grand slam.

“It’s good, this place,” he told Base Paths as his cell phone minutes dwindled to single digits. “There are like 130,000 people here, but it’s like a small village, everybody comes together, I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The pioneering Can-Am (formerly the Northeast) ranks high in the independent minor league hierarchy. Former major leaguers seek redemption in the Can-Am. Les Aigles recently signed pitcher Luis Munoz, a four-year Class AAA vet with some face time vs. the Bisons. Tenure in the Can-Am catches the attention of major-league scouts.

Especially when you get traded.

Upgrading from the Florence, KY, Freedom of the entry-level Frontier League, Smith signed a year ago with the Rockland Boulders for general manager and Niagara Falls native Sean Reilly, “a great guy to work with,” he notes. But the Boulders needed a pitcher, the Aigles an outfielder, and off flew Smith to Troix Riviers.

“That was a great feeling,” Smith says. “When somebody trades for you, it means you’re really wanted and noticed.”

As of Thursday Smith was hitting .276 and leading the league in homers. He’s never hit for such power before. Virtually every Aigles press release touts his feats – in English, rare praise for a region where French rules.

As an earlier bird, Smith was an all-NFL choice for N-W’s Falcons in 2007. After collegiate stops at Niagara U and Mount Olive, he moved on to Tennessee Wesleyan, which in his senior year went 40-21, reaching the NAIA World Series finals.

That made him a nice fit for the Frontier, a “starter league” with strict age and experience limits, and for most, an “ender” league as well.

Smith hit just .203 with three home runs but his swing, style and persistence caught the eye of Rockland County, one of the Can-Am’s signature franchises. Next, Les Aigles.

The Can-Am has two teams in Quebec and three near New York City. It plays an inter-locking schedule with the American Association in the Midwest. Smith will be heading to Winnipeg – “flying, I hope” – next week. He played last week in New Jersey, at the Jersey Jackals’ Yogi Berra Stadium.

Les Aigles themselves are struggling for altitude, fourth out of five, 10 games below .500. That will not deter organized-ball scouts, who follow the league faithfully, and for Jonny Smith that means only good things ahead, as the bon mots descend in a French-Canadian baseball hotbed.

Doug Smith pitches his baseball column, Base Paths, every Monday. Contact Doug via email at pollyndoug@hotmail.com.

Doug Smith pitches his baseball column, Base Paths, every Monday. Contact Doug via email at pollyndoug@hotmail.com.