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Former Gamecocks star Justin Smoak embraces baseball move to Japan

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Former South Carolina and Stratford High School player Justin Smoak is headed overseas for his next season of professional baseball and a long Major League stint. AP/Darron Cummings

CHARLESTON — After 196 home runs, 570 RBIs and nearly 1,300 major league games, there’s still a lot that Justin Smoak can give to baseball.

If he’s halfway around the world while doing it, well, that’s where the game took him.

“Don’t know if Japanese will ever be part of my language,” Smoak said, the rough-hewn outdoorsy twang still in his voice after five Major League Baseball stops over the past 11 years. “We’ll figure some stuff out. It will definitely be an experience.”

Smoak will play this season with Tokyo's Yomiuri Giants after signing a contract reportedly worth more than $6 million. The 34-year-old who helped win a state championship at Stratford High School, then became South Carolina’s career leader in home runs and RBIs from 2006-08, hopes to get past COVID protocols and arrive in Japan for spring training next month, with his family in tow.

“About a week after the season ended, my agent mentioned that it could be an opportunity,” Smoak said. “My first thought was, ‘There’s no way that I’ll ever even think about that.’ We got further along and it kind of got to the point where there were teams interested here but it definitely wasn’t going to be a good free-agent market.

“This came about two to three weeks ago, and I had to sit down and start thinking seriously about some things. And here we are.”

Smoak, his wife Kristin and their two daughters, ages 2 and 6, were going to leave Thursday, but the pandemic forced a stall. The family can’t even apply for visas until Jan. 31, so it may be mid-February before they can get on a plane, and then they have to quarantine for two weeks once they arrive.

The season is about like MLB’s, with a March/April start and October finish, although it’s a 146-game schedule in Japan instead of the 162 stateside. Smoak has been keeping in shape at home and using The Citadel’s batting cages during the offseason before he heads out.

It won’t be the first time Smoak has played in his future home. He was with Seattle when the Mariners opened the 2012 season with a two-game series against Oakland in the Tokyo Dome.

He batted cleanup behind Ichiro Suzuki and belted a home run in the second game.

Now he’ll try to do it more often than not in 73 home games and another 73 around the Central League.

“They take care of your travel and basically everything else, with housing, travel, food ... ” Smoak said. “It’ll be a change of pace and we’ll embrace it.”

Smoak cut a legendary figure at USC even before he took his first swing. A 6-4 masher who turned down a 16th-round draft pick to come to school, he stood in for the first time and USC’s longtime scorekeeper remarked, “That boy just looks like a ballplayer.”

His at-bats became must-watch, Smoak bashing 62 homers and driving in 207 during his three-year career. Those helped transform him into the No. 11 pick in the 2008 draft and Smoak headed to the minor leagues.

He debuted in 2010 for the Texas Rangers and was traded midway through the year to Seattle, where he played until 2014. Upon his release, he was signed by Toronto, and it was there he had his best stretch and best season, cracking 38 dingers and 90 RBIs in 2017 while earning his only All-Star appearance.

Smoak played 33 games with Milwaukee last year and three with San Francisco, and spent the offseason doing what he usually does — training, hunting and fishing. As he said, the free-agent market wasn’t bubbling over with offers, so when Japan came about, he listened.

“I’ll have my own interpreter, and like a personal concierge there that will take care of pretty much everything,” Smoak said. “My wife has dived into everything. There’s a Disney World 30 minutes way, and our oldest daughter can go to different school programs and activities.”

The one regret he has about the next step in his baseball career is giving up Lowcountry fishing, as it was incredible this season.

But another incredible season could be waiting overseas.

Follow David Cloninger on Twitter @DCPandC.

From Rock Hill, S.C., David Cloninger covers Gamecock sports. He will not rest until he owns every great film and song ever recorded.

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