In the big leagues he’s known as a dependable reliever.
Once a star pitcher at Wright State and now a stalwart of the Houston Astros bullpen, Joe Smith is awaiting the start of his 14th Major League Baseball season.
He’s appeared in 782 games and is known for his unique delivery, a cross between sidearm and submarine style.
But it’s his pitch – off the mound even more so than on it – that’s especially impactful.
“We’re just trying to bring some good into the world,” he told me the other day when discussing one of his charitable involvements.
Smith and his wife Allie LaForce – the former Miss Teen USA, an Ohio University basketball player and journalism grad and now a TNT sideline reporter known for her coverage of the NBA and college basketball’ March Madness – are the highest profile sports couple in the Miami Valley.
They live in Bellbrook in the offseason, though their careers have them travelling around the country much of the year.
At present they’re ensconced in West Palm Beach. Smith went to Florida for spring training and was joined by Allie when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the sports world over two months ago.
Since then they have been doing some real relief work.
With the help of the Athletes and Causes, the nonprofit organization that runs their charitable ventures, they became the driving force of the Project FRONTLINE effort that has delivered over 15,000 meals from restaurants struggling through the coronavirus closures to over-taxed doctors, nurses and hospital staff.
“We’re just trying to say a little thank you to those people who are making sacrifices and risking their lives for the rest of us,” Smith said. “At the same time we’re getting local restaurants involved and giving them some revenue so hopefully they can pay some employees and keep their doors open.”
While the couple made a considerable monetary commitment to the venture, they also got support from other pro athletes and celebrities – people like fellow Astro Josh Reddick, former big leaguer Johnny Damon, Cleveland Cavalier Kevin Love, Portland Trailblazer CJ McCollum, Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona, celebrity chef Michael Symon and others – as well many everyday people.
They’ve helped hospitals in six states and especially in and around Houston and Cleveland, where Joe had two pitching stints and where Allie, who grew up some 40 miles away in Vermilion, once worked as a sports anchor and reporter at Fox affiliate, WJW Channel 8.
Their effort caught the imagination of many and spun off in some unlikely directions.
“A woman from Oberlin called and said, ‘I don’t have a restaurant, but I have 1,000 orchid plants I’d like to donate. Do you think nurses would want one?’” Allie said.
“We had them shipped to our (Athletes and Causes) headquarters in Tampa and they gave them out. And we heard stories how some nurses were in tears knowing someone cared about them.”
While immersed in this project, they’ve continued work with their signature HelpCureHD Foundation.
The HD is for Huntington’s Disease, the congenital disorder that causes the progressive breakdown of nerve cells in the brain and erodes mental capacity and physical capability.
There is no cure and it is usually fatal.
Joe’s grandmother died from HD complications in 2006 and his mother, Lee, a former elementary school teacher in her early 60s, was diagnosed with it eight years ago and for the past 2 ½ years has lived in an Alzheimer’s facility near Cincinnati.
There’s a 50 percent chance that Joe and his sister Megan could inherit the disease.
When he and Allie began the foundation, the goal was to raise awareness and provide financial backing for research. In recent years the focus has switched to helping families attempt costly in vitro fertilization with genetic testing that would help them end up with HD-free embryos to be implanted.
That not only would guarantee an HD-free child, but it would stop the devastating disease from continuing its generational chain.
They had planned to do the process themselves in April, but precautions against COVID-19 prevented those medical procedures. That’s made it especially tough this month since May is Huntington’s Disease Awareness Month.
They want to help families because the costs are steep. Smith said they already have spent $47,000 in their own attempt and it can be $8,000 with every doctor’s visit.
“We’re lucky because I play baseball, but few families can afford that,” he said. “And a lot of it’s not covered by insurance. It’d be emotionally devastating to know you couldn’t help your child or future generations just because of finances.”
He said HD is like a combination of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and ALS:
“It’s the Devil’s Disease.”
‘A true love story’
And yet something quite angelic has been happening, Allie said:
“Joe’s dad can’t get in to see Joe’s mom, so he sits outside of her window every single day just so she can see him. He’s an incredible man and it’s a true love story.
“Joe’s mom really isn’t talking anymore, but she gets up and sees him out there and they have lunch together.”
Although she said Joe’s mom is losing her memory and motor skills, she likes those visits. Nurses will hold a phone up to her ear and Mike, her husband of 39 years, talks to her.
She always been her son’s biggest fan and over the past couple of years the family has taped his night games and played them for her the next day.
That makes these days without baseball especially tough for her.
Allie said there were times when his mom’s condition first began to worsen that Joe struggled with being away from her to play baseball:
“He got to a point where he was questioning: ‘Why am I playing the game?’ He wasn’t feeling any fulfillment at the core of himself.
“But then when he found that our foundation could help families get HD-free babies and change a family’s future, he realized the platform and the financial capabilities he had with baseball. He started to feel a new fulfillment. That made the game worth it again.”
Smith said he knows “some people’s beliefs don’t allow them to go along with this and that’s fine… But for me, this is a chance to get rid of a terrible disease.
“You’re not changing eye color or height or anything else about the human being. You’re just knocking the Huntington’s gene out.”
They had 24 families in their program when the pandemic put everything on hold. But recently they got word that two families – one in Ohio, one in Houston – have HD-free pregnancies.
“That was a really rewarding moment,” Smith said. “That’s what we’re trying to do here. We’re just trying to bring some good into the world.”
With their ‘round-the-calendar careers – she covering basketball and football, he playing baseball – Allie said these have been the first weekends they’ve had off together since they married in 2015.
While she said it was “awesome” for their relationship, they were even more intent on looking out for others.
“I think it has to do with both of our upbringings,” she said. “In my hometown, my parents would run steak fries to raise money if somebody in our high school or community was in need. I can remember working at them growing up.
“And when I was Miss Teen USA, I was like 16 and went all over the country raising over $100 million for different charities.”
Smith continues to embrace the Wright State program which he joined as a walk-on out of Amelia High School near Cincinnati. He became the Horizon League Pitcher of the Year and in 2006 was a third-round draft pick of the New York Mets.
His career took him to Cleveland, the Los Angeles Angels, Chicago Cubs, Toronto, back to Cleveland and in December of 2017 he signed with the Astros. He suffered a ruptured Achilles in a workout the following December and pitched just 25 innings in the latter part of last season, but still had a 1.80 era.
This past December, three months shy of 36, he re-signed for $8 million over two years.
He said he was impressed with the Astros from the start:
“When I walked into that clubhouse in 2018, it was unbelievable. Everybody was looking for ways to give back to the community. A lot of it had to do with the way (Hurricane) Harvey hit the city (in 2017.) They understood what people were going through and tried to help anyway they could.”
Now Project FRONTLINE – which sent hundreds of meals to places like the Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital and Texas Children’s Hospital – is continuing that communal embrace.
Back to baseball?
As restrictions are being eased across the nation, preliminary talks have begun about baseball’s return this season. Last week Major League Baseball presented a 67-page proposal to the Players’ Association that addressed some issues.
“It’s going to be different, but the feeling I get from everybody (players and management) is that they all want to get back on the field and start playing,” Smith said. “But there are so many questions to be answered:
“’What’s spring training going to look like? And the regular season? Where will teams play? What will travel be like?’ And then there’s the economic issues.
“And one thing can’t be overlooked here. It takes a lot more than 25 young guys running around to play baseball.
“We have four coaches who are 70 years old and technically in that high-risk category. There are trainers, front office people and so many others in that group, too. We need to keep them safe.
“And we’ve got guys in our league who are literally taking care of their families. Some have 10 people living with them. Some have their parents living with them. God forbid, you bring the virus home because one of your teammates was careless.”
But on the flip side, there’s also a woman in her early 60s for whom he’d certainly like to be back on the field.
For all her physical struggles and cognitive issues, his mom knows exactly what he’s doing, Allie said:
“She knows if he had a good game or a bad one. She knows how many batters he faced. How many strikeouts he got. She loves her son so much. She knows just what he’s doing.”
She knows his pitch.
She knows, in so many ways, he and his wife Allie are “just trying to bring some good into the world.”
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