Justin Smoak (left), who plays for the Seattle Mariners and was a standout baseball player at Stratford High School and South Carolina, lost his father, Keith, who died Tuesday at age 57.
It seemed like something out of the movie "Field of Dreams." But what made this even better was that it was real life.
On a Sunday in mid-February in Columbia, a father and son played catch and shared a round of batting practice for what turned out to be the final time. Baseball was a bond between Justin Smoak and his father, Keith, and cancer wasn't going to break it.
Smoak, 24, a former baseball star at Stratford High School and South Carolina, and current first baseman with the Seattle Mariners, was preparing to head to spring training in Arizona, but first it was time to play catch and have his swing critiqued by the man who taught him how to play baseball.
On that day in mid-February, Keith Smoak, who was diagnosed with lung cancer last May, sat in a wheelchair in Carolina Stadium but smiled when he threw the ball to his son. With his family in attendance, Keith was presented by USC baseball coach Ray Tanner with a USC jersey with "K. Smoak" and Justin's No. 12 on the back.
"It was probably the best day of my life because I had my family there with me," Keith told a reporter.
Keith Smoak died Tuesday at age 57, a little over two months after that game of catch with his son. Tanner was one of the first people to call Justin, who had been placed on a bereavement list by the Mariners.
"I told Justin, as much as we are going to miss Keith, this should be a celebration of the life of a person who meant so much to his son, to his family and to the University of South Carolina baseball family," Tanner said. "That afternoon at Carolina Stadium was special, and it was special because it was about family. His dad was the staple in his life.
"Not only did his parents come to the games, they came to practices, too," Tanner said. "Keith embraced his son and embraced the team. When Justin got drafted and moved on, we missed his mom and dad as much as we missed Justin."
John Rhodes was Justin's coach when he played for the Diamond Devils travel team. Rhodes said the teenage years can be a turbulent time between a father and son, but that wasn't the case with the Smoaks.
"They have a very close relationship," Rhodes said. "When you're a teenager, your parents -- your dad -- can become an afterthought. But that was never the case with Justin and his dad. I'm sure this is tough on Justin. I know they talked all the time."
At Stratford, the younger Smoak attracted the attention of recruiters from all over the country as early as his sophomore year. Stratford coach John Chalus said his young player was very level-headed and respectful.
"You could tell his dad taught him to respect the game," Chalus said. "He taught him to respect those who played the game and coached it. That's important in today's world."
Mariners manager Eric Wedge said the team will give Smoak all the time he needs before he rejoins the team. He is Seattle's leading hitter with a .291 batting average and a pair of homers and five doubles.
Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at Aldersgate United Methodist Church. Burial will be at Carolina Memorial Park.