TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — “It’s really just intensified pink.”
Felecia Evans-Smith, a second-generation member of Alpha Kappa Alpha’s Gamma Mu Chapter, is describing with a big smile how she manages to wear the colors crimson and cream, complete with an elephant logo.
She crossed into her sorority at Alabama A&M University 25 years ago exactly, and still carries her pink and green AKA blanket to the ballpark on chilly nights. Just like on the Saturday before Easter, when she was seated next to her mother, who crossed 50 years ago exactly, and her grandmother who grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, rooting for the Barons in the Negro Leagues.
“We are like a sports family for women,” Evans-Smith said the following day at a Sunday brunch while some Alabama AKAs were celebrating themselves in their holiday best.
And they don’t care that they were in fact rocking the colors that most people associate with Delta Sigma Theta, a different member of the Divine Nine, who are not to be confused under any circumstances.
Why? Because they were there to root for Evans-Smith’s son: Dylan Smith, the mild-mannered, hard-throwing right-handed pitcher for the Alabama Crimson Tide, who started the day before.
Smith, who was drafted by the San Diego Padres in the 18th round in 2018, chose to play at Alabama, where his mom, grandma and great-grandma are often in the crowd, wearing their “D. Smith – 25” jerseys in both home and road colors. With, of course, their AKA blankets to keep warm.
“Whenever we started on this journey years ago, we’ve always had my mom, myself,” said Evans-Smith, who moved from Alabama to Houston with Dylan when he was a baby. “We go to mostly everything that Dylan does. He played a whole bunch of different sports. My grandmother used to come to Houston and spend many weeks with us and go to his tournaments. It’s kind of just like how we operate, you know, just support each other.”
We’re not just talking orange slices and pompoms here. Felecia knows the game. “They’re killing us with the changeup,” she notes at one point when a teammate goes down on strikes to end an inning. When a new Tennessee pitcher enters the game in relief, with a bit of an oddball delivery, she points it out. “Look at this dude’s motion. He finna C-walk if he strikes somebody out,” she joked, to the delight of the group.
Evans-Smith’s brother and nephew are there along with her best friend from Houston and their kids. It’s a complete family affair at the yard. Her energy is loud, smart and infectious. She made the TV broadcast several times while rooting for more people than her son, and the team overall.
That night, Smith’s pitch count got up early and he came out of the game in the fourth, instead of going his usual seven or eight. He wasn’t as bummed about his outing as much as he was upset that he couldn’t go longer to give the Tide’s much-used and banged-up bullpen some rest. That’s the kind of teammate he is. They lost to the Volunteers that night and eventually the series, too.
“If we’re fully healthy,” said Smith, “these are teams we beat.”
But he understands it’s part of the process.
One of the unfortunate things about not just racism, but more generally, lazy Americans, is that we operate our “narratives of need” for Black people along lines that almost always have to do with pain. If a Black family is trying to achieve in sports at the highest level, the general presumption is that they’re trying only to strike it rich, as if a love of the game isn’t enough to motivate success – or that the two are somehow mutually exclusive.
Reminder: Not all Black folks are broke. Or from the inner city.
So when Major League Baseball opened its second youth academy in Houston in 2010 – one of the facilities designed to connect the game to kids of color – it was hailed as a highly progressive and hands-on way of tackling a key problem that baseball finds with itself: access. But that doesn’t mean it’s for everyone.
For the families whose kids were playing little league and excelling, the academy wasn’t a great option for a simple reason: It was too far away. Sure it was cool, but ultimately too much of a hassle. So some of the parents of Houston’s Missouri City Little League did what Black folks have been doing for years: They started their own team.
Hence, the Houston Monarchs were born in 2015. On this team, Smith found his extended family.
Started by parents and eventually headed up by Marquis Jonkins, a former college baseball player at Prairie View A&M who just plain loves the game, the Monarchs excelled almost immediately on the select travel circuit. But it was a whole new game for a lot of them, and not just the players.
“It kind of reminded me of myself when we grew up playing baseball,” Jonkins said. “They wasn’t really functioning at a level that I thought they could be at. So when I came aboard, I implemented some rule changes to make them a whole lot better. …
“I just got together and told the parents, ‘First things first, we’re going to look like a team.’ Make sure all the kids had the same cleats, all the bags, we’re gonna look neat. And then we’re going to work on the fundamentals of baseball and make sure they get it together. They started at 8. And I got them at 9. And I just told the parents, ‘Trust me, I can get these kids where they need to be.’ ”
In baseball, the experience of being on a team is a large part of the appeal. The ordered pairs of the game, the long but satisfying routine of ground balls, bullpen sessions, batting practice and shagging fly balls, is a process that gels players as both friends and competitors. It isn’t just all raw power and speed, it’s a lifestyle.
The Monarchs ended up winning a couple titles on that circuit, traveling the country and dominating their age group, a life win that few could have predicted.
“It’s one of my greatest accomplishments,” Jonkins said. “We took the kids to Myrtle Beach [South Carolina] for a week. We traveled to Beaumont [Texas]. We dealt with racism. We had incorporated unity and teamwork with them kids, to the point that they understood that’s just how life is set up for us. And that goes back to learning life skills. We can’t sit up here and complain. Because that’s what they want us to do. So let’s channel that energy, and let’s go win.
“Just traveling and seeing the kids pack their bags, hotels, they’re running around having fun, and that’s what it is. This is an experience that I knew would carry over to the next level.”
And that it did for many guys, particularly Smith.
Oftentimes in America’s pastime, Black kids with speed and range are immediately coached to the outfield, because scouting brains can’t fathom the notion of a player with the smarts to pitch or catch, or the repetitive patience required to hone one’s skill on the infield. Playing football, basketball, track and soccer, Smith wasn’t about to get pigeonholed.
A story told so many times, the politics of private school baseball didn’t work out so well. He switched to public school, but he was undersized for most of his career. Now, he’s tall enough to wave at fans over their booth dividers when they yell his name in public places.
Looking back on his first days at St. Pius X High School in Houston, before he landed at Stafford High School, he can only help but laugh.
“I was only 5-foot-2, maybe, uh, 95 pounds,” said Smith, who is now 6-foot-2. “But I could throw it.”
In the Deep South, folks take style very seriously. Whether it’s the frat boys wearing ties to SEC football games, or the pageant-type mindset of the Southern belle lifestyle, some folks really like to bring it on the threads front. Smith is no different. His Instagram rivals that of many pro athletes who think they’re doing something stylewise.
He learned it from his grandfather. The man who he called “Daddio” was impeccable to the nines, and his signature hats were a whole vibe. He passed in December 2020, but Smith continues his traditions today, and the kid with the wry smile is so nice with it he’s even got his coaches (and their families) getting on board, too.
But he had to prove it first.
“He showed up in January on that scrimmage day and just showed up to the stadium all decked out,” Alabama coach Brad Bohannon described of the origin story for the man they call D-Smoove on game days. “And we were kind of ribbing him like, ‘Hey, dude, you better bring it. If you’re going to swag out like that, like, you can’t go out there and pitch like crap.’ And he had an awesome outing that day, and it just kind of caught steam. Next thing you know, two weeks later, there’s four or five kids showed up [dressed up]. In fact, our first road trip to Arkansas, even I participated.”
The skinny kid from Texas has his whole college squad getting fresh on his throwing days, a far cry from him not making varsity at some private school because of coaching changes.
And Coach Bohannon didn’t do it halfway either.
“I did let my wife dress me,” Bohannon said with a hearty laugh.
College baseball is about as team-oriented as a team sport gets. The grind of the schedule, the relative dearth of scholarship opportunities on the whole and the still relatively low profile of the game means there isn’t a whole lot of room for prima donna behavior for the most part.
Smith, even with the big league-ready nickname (Real Deal), the great stuff on the mound and the support system, is very much about his business.
“My biggest thing was I needed to focus. My whole thing to be here is to get closer to my degree and develop as a player at a faster rate,” Smith explained.
He started as a computer engineering major, something he has a genuine interest in, but now majors in sports marketing with a minor in sports management. Of course, the rigors of college baseball just don’t allow the time – from a scheduling standpoint – to do both. You can’t practice during class.
“I couldn’t worry about all the extra stuff going on outside,” he said. “I mean, you gotta stay focused to your goals. If I’m here for baseball, that’s what I’m focused on.”
His grandmother is also holding him down, beyond her attendance at every home game, including weekday matchups.
How? Exactly how you’d expect. Cooking him what he likes. Just saying the words “beef tips and rice” lights up Smith’s face. When he was trying to gain weight after arriving on campus, she’d bring him food from time to time. After a while, he had to up the requests, because who isn’t trying to eat as much of grandma’s food as possible, and he legitimately needed to consume the calories. Wilhelmina Evans gets it done in the kitchen.
“Like this past week, I brought in some. It was the middle of the week. But, then since it’s the weekend, he called me and told me to bring some more,” Evans, 70, said with the exact kind of welcoming voice you would expect of a woman with her grace and experience. “Sometimes he likes fried pork chops, but sometimes grilled. He loves chili when it’s cold out. He likes greens, he likes candied yams. Fresh ones. I don’t do the canned stuff.”
Back in Houston, they’re focused on him. His age group of guys from the Monarchs is still tight. So much so that coach threw a party for him at a public establishment to watch Smith pitch.
“I mean, we all became best friends,” Smith said with pride. “We all treat each other like brothers. You know, we all had each other’s backs, no matter any situation, we had each other’s backs. And now we still have the same backs today.”
So much so that Coach Jonkins made flyers. And folks showed up. Even people who didn’t know they’d be watching the Real Deal pitch that evening found out as well.
“Man, we had a good time watching that game,” Jonkins said. “The highlight was of course when we looked up on TV and saw Felecia and them jumping up and down when he struck the kid out. It was just amazing, to see that. People came in there because of course they had the Final Four on, but said, ‘Hey, what y’all watching?’ I said, ‘I used to coach that kid!’ And people just started gathering around watching too, because you see a Black kid pitching and you’re like, wow. And he’s from Houston? It was a good day, man.”
For Evans-Smith, this journey isn’t close to over. She travels to games from Houston and keeps up with the majors too, because her son will likely be there soon. They basically did all of this in the proverbial dark, because the systems of development that were so clearly available to so many other people just weren’t on their radar. Smith had a chance to go to the Dream Series, sponsored by MLB’s Breakthrough Series program, but didn’t even know what it was. And who could blame them? Nobody told them. That’s why she’s still active to this day on a private Facebook group where members discuss all matters of the game from fundamentals to culture. Each one teach one.
Ultimately, her boy went home to Alabama and he’s growing with his family, just an hour away from the town that built them. Alabama, while still very much Alabama, isn’t necessarily a place of constant fear or consternation. It’s where they grew up.
“We’re coming from an educational background, you know, in our family, we believe in having an education,” Evans-Smith, 44, noted. “I do believe that Dylan needed the maturity. It’s great to get drafted, but sometimes you need to make sure that your kid is balanced to go into that type of situation with a bunch of grown men.”
His team sees it, too. “Dylan deserves all the credit, man, he is the one that’s put in the work and he’s the one that stood out performing,” Bohannon said. “He’s had a great season to this point and I think his best baseball is still way ahead of him.”
That trip to Houston that Coach Bohannon made, a relatively abnormal instance because of baseball recruiting rules, to look Evans-Smith in the face and tell her that her son would be well-coached and well taken care of considering he was passing up actual money to play pro ball to come to Tuscaloosa, was worth it for everyone.
“They always been there since day one for me. The women in my family always are behind me,” said Smith, who is starting Saturday on the road against Texas A&M (on SECN+). “To be honest, I was kind of sad, you know, at a time, you know, I was like, ‘Man, I wish I would’ve did it [gone pro].’ But at the same time, I can see everything’s paying off how I wanted to. I’m starting to come into my own. I’m starting to become better from a standpoint on the field, off the field. Everything has matured. From my development of this game to the classroom, everything’s become way better than what I used to be.”
The pandemic didn’t rattle Smith. It might have paused the one thing he’d been working his whole life for, but that’s exactly why, just like in his days as a Houston Monarch, he stuck to the fundamentals of life and kept building.
“The turning point for me with him, honestly, was the COVID situation,” Evans-Smith said. “Even though a lot of people would give it as a negative deal, it was the time for us to kind of reset our lives. He reset and he came back better. So at the end of the day, I don’t regret anything. And, I like the University of Alabama. It’s been good to us.”
Sounds like a pretty sweet place to call home.