Mets-Phils rivalry adds dynamic to friendship
Two prospects poised to ascend professional ranks in opposing dugouts
LAKEWOOD, N.J. -- Dominic Smith and J.P. Crawford grew up about 13 miles apart in Southern California.
Starting when they were 12, they played together at Compton's Urban Youth Academy and on travel teams, and were teammates on the Jr. Division Champions of the 2009 RBI World Series. Then they squared off against each other with their high school squads.
Last June, they were both drafted in the first round, five slots apart. Smith, a 6-foot, 185-pound first baseman, was taken by the Mets at No. 11. Crawford, a 6-foot-2, 180-pound shortstop, was selected by the Phillies at No. 16. This past weekend, their Class A clubs met on the Jersey Shore, smack dab in the region where allegiances shift from New York teams to those from Philadelphia. In fact, if you took a helicopter to avoid traffic, tolls and the Atlantic Ocean, Lakewood's FirstEnergy Park is about 52 miles from both Citi Field and Citizens Bank Park.
They were literally in the middle of the Mets-Phillies rivalry. Down the road -- Five years? Ten? -- they could figuratively be the faces of the franchises as they clash 18 times a season in pursuit of a National League East title.
"It really hit us the night we got drafted," Smith said. "Some of the people at the Draft brought it up to us, and it really sunk in to our heads, like: Wow, we both stay on our path, when we get to the big leagues, we'll be playing against each other a lot. It should be a lot of fun."
For two guys who spent much of the past six years playing with each other, looking across the field to see such a friend in a rival's dugout may take some adjusting.
"Especially from playing with each other for so long, it's going to be a lot different," Crawford said. "But it's still going to be fun playing against him now."
After the Draft, both players started their professional careers in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League in Florida. Smith then played three games in the Appalachian League, also rookie level, while Crawford was promoted to Class A Lakewood for the final two weeks. Their batting lines looked pretty similar, too: Smith hit .301/.398/.439 in 206 plate appearances, Crawford put up .308/.405/.400 in 228 trips to the plate.
This season, they both broke camp in the Class A South Atlantic League, Smith with the Savannah Sand Gnats and Crawford with the Lakewood BlueClaws, but they have had decidedly different results. Following the weekend series (during which Smith's Sand Gnats won three out of five), Crawford was batting .288 and on Sunday hit his second home run. Smith came into the series batting .167 with no extra-base hits, but he went 6-for-17 with three doubles.
"Last year, when we got him toward the end of the year, I think it was a long year for him; a lot of stuff happened fast for him," said Crawford's manager, Greg Legg. "I kind of saw a guy who was tired. Right now, you're seeing a guy who ignites our offense; he's getting on base a lot. Great hands at the plate, great hands in the field. They hit it to him and there's a guy at third with two outs, he's the guy I want them to hit it to."
"You've just got to keep your head up," Crawford said. "That's been my main goal. If you struggle a little bit a day or two in a row, you just got to remember it's a long season. You gotta keep your head up, keep playing hard, no matter how you do."
Despite his meager numbers so far this season, Smith is not fazed.
"It's the third week of the season," he said. "Anything can happen from now until September. We play 144 games. I'm not panicking. Everybody who comes through, even my coaches, they aren't panicking. Even the front office isn't panicking. This is all a learning process. It's a part of my learning curve."
They are, after all, still teenagers (Crawford turned 19 in January, Smith will in June) playing in a league in which the average age of the players is nearly 22.
"He's a young kid at this level; it's a tough level for him," Savannah manager Luis Rojas said. "At-bat to at-bat, it's just keeping it the same, not trying anything new, not trying to do more. He's hitting the ball really good. He's been a victim of hitting the ball right at the defenders. He's having a good start. He's getting stronger every day with the experience, and it's helping him, it's helping his development right now."
Should both players progress level by level, climbing each rung of the ladder, they will advance together. After the Sally League, both the Mets and the Phillies have Class A Advanced affiliates in the Florida State League and Double-A clubs in the Eastern League. It is only at Triple-A where they would be separated, because the Mets' affiliate is currently in Las Vegas, and the Phillies' is in Lehigh Valley, Pa.
"I actually didn't even notice that," Smith said. "That would be fun. Hopefully, we both progress. He's doing a great job right now, and if he keeps it up all season, and if I keep doing like I did last night, I should be fine too. It should be a ton of fun, playing him every couple of weeks. He's a great player. Watching him since 13 to now is just amazing.
"Hopefully, we keep climbing the ladder like we're supposed to and when we get to Double-A we just make the jump to the big leagues, and that will be really fun."
Dan Cichalski is a senior editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.