CHICAGO — There were times last season when Kevan Smith had to pinch himself.
A long and winding athletic journey had brought the Seneca Valley graduate to the pinnacle of baseball.
He was in the majors. The Show. He was a catcher with the Chicago White Sox and he was playing well.
After a slow start and one demotion to Class AAA Charlotte, Smith returned in May and stuck with the White Sox for the rest of the 2017 season.
He batted .283 with four home runs, 30 RBI and showed some pop with 17 doubles in 276 at-bats.
Over the final month of the season, he hit .310.
Smith, who will turn 30 on June 28, thought that was enough to prove he finally belonged on a big-league roster.
But the White Sox signed free-agent catcher Wellington Castillo on Dec. 1 and Smith entered spring training battling Omar Narvaez for the second-catcher spot.
“That was kind of a hit to Omar and I,” Smith said.
Smith, a Seneca Valley graduate, lost out — in part due to a sprained ankle — and began his season in Class AAA Charlotte.
“I had a minor league option and you fall into a situation where you have no control over anything,” Smith said. “They wanted a left-handed bat (Navaez) and I had no choice but to go to Triple-A and play my butt off.”
Smith embraced the grind in Charlotte, hoping his chance would come again.
And he knew it would.
White Sox manager Rick Renteria has long had an affinity for Smith, partly because of the circuitous route he took, from quarterback at the University of Pittsburgh, to the Butler BlueSox in the Prospect League to several years toiling away in the minors.
It mirrored, in a way, Renteria’s baseball journey in the 1980s and 90s.
“He’s always loved me as a player and a person,” Smith said. “He went through some of the same speed bumps as a player that I’ve been through and he’s always been in my corner.”
Two weeks after Castillo was suspended 80 games for testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance, Smith was recalled June 5 and has been making the most of his opportunity.
Smith started the first four games after his call-up before getting a day off Sunday afternoon in Boston.
He’s batting .421 with three multi-hit games since his return to the majors.
“All my buddies are up here,” Smith said. “I talked to them all the time. I never really felt disconnected from the team, especially the pitching staff.”
Smith knows many of the pitchers on the White Sox staff well, having caught several of them in the minor leagues.
His ability to call games and handle the staff is one of his strengths.
“I certainly take pride in earning the pitchers’ confidence and trust,” Smith said. “The more you know them on the field and off the field, the better you can get a feel for what makes them tick.”
Smith and young starting pitcher Lucas Giolito have certainly formed a strong bond.
With Smith behind the plate, Giolito has a 1.99 ERA in seven starts.
“We just kind of have a good feel for each other,” Giolito said. “Good communication throughout the game. He does a good job seeing when I start to get off-kilter with my mechanics here and there.”
Smith said handling a pitching staff is an acquired art.
“I think bringing the best out of pitchers is definitely something you need to learn,” Smith said. “The faster you learn how to call a game — understand the situation, what this guy likes to hit, what this pitcher likes to throw, who’s coming up — the faster you can make it to the big leagues.
“I think a lot of teams in the game are afraid to expose young catchers to that for fear it will overwhelm them,” Smith added. “It’s a tough process to learn, how to run a game. It’s like a second language. If I were a coach, I’d hold classes with catchers on how to do that.”
Smith hopes to have a long major league career. But when his playing days are over, he wants to stick as a coach in professional baseball.
“I love hunting and fishing, but I always tell people I literally have a doctorate in baseball,” Smith said. “Why wouldn’t I use that knowledge?”