Friday, April 21, 2006

From Russia With Glove

Courtesy of the L.A. Times

by Bill Plaschke
April 21, 2006

For the first 10 years of her life, she didn't know she had a first name.

Now, baseball has given her several."Let's go, Tash!" … "Get 'em Nat!" … "All yours, Pony Tail!""They call me lots of things," Natasha Smith said. "I never get tired of hearing any of them."

For the first 10 years of her life, she didn't experience a loving touch.

Now, baseball surrounds her with dozens. Her teammates smack her glove. She punches their arms. They grab her shoulders. She slaps high fives."I used to feel unwanted," she said. "But people like me now."

For the first 10 years of her life, living in a children's home in the Russian woods, she was an orphan. Today, on the Calvary Baptist high school boys baseball team, Natasha Smith is a shortstop. Her adoptive parents hold the camera in the stands. Her date for the La Verne school's graduation banquet sits next to her on the bench. MaggieMoo's will be open for a strawberry-banana shake after a victory. Simple things, but wondrous things, for a girl who grew up without celebrating her birthday because she didn't understand the concept of birthdays."I thought kids never grew up," she said. She didn't even understand the idea of parents until she had them."I thought all the kids lived together forever," she said.

When missionaries Carol and Harry Smith brought her to La Verne a decade ago, just before she turned 10, she didn't speak a word of English. And when she did, she had difficulty understanding because of long-untreated dyslexia."I was always the dumbest," she said. "In Russia, in America, everywhere, I was the dumbest."But then she discovered the daily miracle that American adolescents have understood forever.

It is the one place in their life that does not judge. It is high school sports. The playing field does not care where you are from, as long as you keep showing up. It does not care who you are, as long as you bring it all with you. Running around her giant orphanage made her physically strong. Hiding from daily beatings made her mentally tough. Her mother took her to a church league soccer practice shortly after her arrival here, and suddenly she found a language she understood.

Said Smith: "In sports, I was even with everyone. In sports, they did not laugh."Kids never grow up? Oh, but they do, and this spring, at age 19, Natasha Smith's days are filled with balloons and frosting and light.She is not only one of the only serious female baseball players in Southern California, she is possibly the best pure player at her 35-person high school, which is not large enough to field a girls softball team.

Folks stare at the pig tails sticking out from under her blue cap, but nobody notices anything else. The playing field only cares, can you hit? Smith does, driving in 10 runs in her first 18 at-bats. Can you catch? Smith does, having committed errors in only three of nine games.Can you run? Smith had 15 stolen bases in her first 15 tries. Can you … go out on a date with the opposing pitcher? OK, in Smith's case, the playing field occasionally cares about something else."Our guys are really impressed with her as an athlete, but I hear them talking, they also think she's really cute," said David Bowman, father of an opposing Highland Hall player, Matt. "You can see them hanging out longer after the game because they want to meet her."

In one recent victory, against the California School for the Deaf, Smith stole home with the eventual game-winning run, then recorded the final out as the winning pitcher. Afterward, surrounded by congratulating teammates, heading for the ice cream parlor with her parents, Smith had one of those thoughts that often fills her eyes with tears. No crying in baseball? Not here."Sometimes during the day I just stop and cry, thinking about how lucky I am to have been chosen by these wonderful people," she said in her perfect Russian-accented English. "Chosen for this wonderful life."

Fourth inning, runner on first, one out, Highland Hall pitcher struggling, up stepped Natasha Smith.And here came the familiar cheer."You're not gonna let her get a hit off you, are you?" shouted a dad to the pitcher. At some point in every game, she hears it. And at some point in every game, after she makes a good play, it stops.This time, it stopped with a thwack. A fastball sailed into her left forearm.S he turned, winced, then dropped the bat and trotted down to first base with one noticeably absent motion. She never touched the arm." It hurt a little, but I don't show it, I never show it," she said. "You have to get used to the hurt."

She learned this after she was abandoned by her parents as an infant in St. Petersburg, Russia. She spent the next decade in orphanages where she was called only by her last name — Salieleva — and called only to work or eat."If you complained, you were hit, so I eventually learned to stop complaining," she said.

She rarely experienced a warm hug, never felt a good-night kiss, never heard a lullaby.What she did hear were the commands to wash the floors or haul the trash, followed by slaps if the jobs were not done properly."They did not care about you there," she said. "I never knew love."

When Harry and Carol Smith decided to add two children to their childless marriage, they worked through a local agency, picking Natasha out of a video."She didn't have the proper paperwork, so the agency tried to talk us into somebody else, somebody easier, but she had this certain presence, I can't explain it, we just had to have her," Carol said.

It took a year longer, and when they finally arrived to pick her up, her hair had been shoddily cut because of lice, and her body was still aching from a beating."I remember my mother put me on her lap, I had never before sat in anybody's lap, it was the happiest day of my life," Smith recalled.

She had never driven in a car, so she vomited throughout their drive to nearby St. Petersburg. She had never seen a clock, so she had no understanding of something as simple as bedtime. She had been scared during long nights in orphanage, so she refused to sleep in the dark. And when it came time to give her new parents a kiss?"She didn't even know how to kiss," Carol said. "It was more like a bite."

On her adoption application, Natasha had written that her favorite things in the world were kukla, the Russian word for dolls. So her parents showered her with dolls, leading to one of the first revelations about their daughter."I told them, I only put kukla on the application because I was told that would make it easier for me to get adopted," Smith said. "I told them, 'I hate kukla.' "

No, she loved sports, even those she didn't understand, like baseball, which she only began playing on a dare."My freshman year, my friends asked me to play, but I was afraid of the ball," she said. "When I finally decided to try it, I run to the wrong base."But try it she did, because the field, any field, was the one place she felt comfortable."

Sports was the one place in life where she felt on equal footing with everyone else," said Harry, who is now a mechanical engineer. "It was the one place she felt she could compete." In this, her senior year, she was a basketball all-star, but it is in baseball where she makes her biggest impact."When I first saw her, I had no idea she would become such a good player," said her coach, Lincoln Dial, who is also the Calvary Baptist pastor. "We play sports for the right reasons here, but we also want to win. We play her because she can help us win."

And she never ceases to amaze, such as the time she singled and stole second and briefly took off her helmet and the opposing shortstop shouted, "Hey, look! It's a chick!"

Or the time a hard-throwing pitcher threw her only lobs, which she angrily swatted away. Then there are the opposing players who compliment her during the postgame handshake, then quietly ask her teammates for her phone number" We tell them to back off," said Robert Little, a junior third baseman. "She's one of us."She's one of us. And here, Natasha Smith once thought she would never be part of anybody.

After a recent Calvary Baptist practice in which she laughed and slugged and sprinted and answered to eight different nicknames, all of them meaning "teammate," Smith told a story. "I remember once, when I was little, they took us to the beach, and I looked up and saw an airplane, and I wished I could fly in an airplane," she said. "I didn't know there were other countries, I didn't know where I would fly, I just wanted to fly."She smiled."I think, now, I fly."

Bill Plaschke can be reached at To read previous Plaschke columns, go to

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