Winfred Smith wouldn’t say how old he really is, but age hasn’t slowed him down in 39 years as the Pine Bluff Braves’ player-manager.
The younger players he helps prepare for the collegiate and professional level seem to keep him going. They help the semi-professional baseball team continue its longstanding mission.
“We’ve served our purpose over the last 61 years,” Smith said.
The purpose of giving men a chance to improve their skills in competitive baseball is still Smith’s goal. His father Burl, one of the team’s original founders, got him started in the organization as a bat boy when Negro League teams came to play the Braves, whose first season was 1952.
“It was almost like if you didn’t like baseball in my house, something was wrong with you,” he said.
Smith was a draft prospect himself until he was 28, he said, but never signed with a team. While the former Arkansas AM&N (now Arkansas-Pine Bluff) player kept earning promotions with a railroad company, he never was offered more than a signing bonus of $25,000 with a baseball organization.
Every year, his Braves roster is dotted with local players who come home from college and those just looking for the right opportunity to take their game further. The same opportunity Torii Hunter had one summer to go pro after coming off the bus from a Braves’ road trip to Huntington, Tenn., as Smith recalled.
Then again, there’s playing for the love of the game.
“It’s the love,” Marquis Blake, 25, said. “I’ve been playing baseball all my life and in high school.”
A Pine Bluff police officer, Blake pitches and makes stops in the middle infield for the Braves. His love for the game is no cold case, and he’d like to see if it gives him a shot at the pros.
“If I get around the right people, yes, at the drop of a hat,” he said.
Some of the Braves have spent time in the minor leagues already, including Reece Cross, Earl White and Christian Kidd, according to Smith. Watson Chapel alumnus Collin Massanelli spent time with the team before starting his collegiate career at Arkansas State, and Sebastian Stargell plays for Pine Bluff when he’s home from Texas Southern.
Jeremy Brann, who just finished his redshirt freshman season playing at North Arkansas Community College, has a 2-0 pitching record so far for the Braves. The 2010 Watson Chapel graduate’s goal is to be drafted out of the junior college ranks.
“It’s going to keep me in shape, get ready for minors,” he said of playing with the Braves. “You have to learn to work out on your own. The majors won’t baby you. It’s much the same way here.”
Brann says the Braves helps with his conditioning. He was strong during the JUCO season, going 6-3 with a 1.73 ERA for NorthArk.
The Braves play about 40 games per year from April through October and usually play in a National Baseball Congress regional tournament, where scouts discover many of their prospects. The team plays some of its home games at Torii Hunter Baseball Complex on the UAPB campus and others at Regional Park.
Currently the Braves are 9-0, nine wins away from matching their best start in franchise history. They are tentatively scheduled to host the South Chicago Panthers at 6 p.m. Friday or 3 p.m. Saturday at Regional Park.