EDITORS’ NOTE: BP Sports columnist Tim Ellsworth recently visited Florida to do a series of stories on spring training as baseball players get ready to begin a new season.
JUPITER, Fla. (BP)–He’s warming up in the bullpen, and he gets the call from the manager. It’s time to pitch.
“God in the aggression, with Eric by my side,” Florida Marlins pitcher Taylor Tankersley says to himself.
He steps atop the mound and takes his warm-up pitches.
“God in the aggression, with Eric by my side,” he repeats.
He finishes warming up and stares to the catcher for the sign.
“God in the aggression, with Eric by my side,” he says again.
It’s a mantra that Tankersley repeats any time he takes the mound, because it reminds him of his two sources of fuel.
The “God” part is clear enough. Tankersley, who has been a Christian since he was 14, knows that his talents and abilities come from the Lord. He doesn’t pray for a strikeout or anything like that, but he does ask God to help him use his gifts the best that he can. And being aggressive on the mound is part of that.
But who exactly is Eric?
“Eric was a buddy of mine who died when I was in college,” Tankersley said. “Solid Christian guy. Fought cancer for most of his life.”
Eric Smith and Tankersley were high school classmates. Smith had a brain tumor behind his eye and spent much of his time in and out of the hospital. He came to Tankersley’s games anytime he could.
“He had the same passion for baseball as I do,” Tankersley said. “As my career took off, his life was cut short. So I feel like now, the opportunities I get in this game are not just for myself. They’re for Eric.”
But as passionate as Smith was about baseball, he loved something else even more.
“He was unashamed of his relationship with the Lord and was open about it,” Tankersley said. “Even in spite of his physical condition, he was the most uplifting person to be around that I’d ever met. It was unbelievable, just his spirit and his heart.”
Tankersley tells about the time when the Make-A Wish Foundation granted Smith a wish. Smith’s desire was to go to St. Louis and meet Mark McGwire.
At the time, Smith weighed 110 pounds and had to wear an eye patch because the tumor bulged out his eye.
“Just a little sickly guy, kind of had a hobble,” Tankersley said. “He sat down in the dugout with Mark McGwire, and one of the first things he asked him, he said, ‘Mr. McGwire, are you a believer? I want to know that I’m going to see you again someday.’
“That’s the type of person that Eric was. As a 16-year-old, terminally ill kid that gets to meet his idol, that was the impression he made.”
To honor his friend and preserve his memory, Tankersley during this past off-season started a scholarship fund called “Eric’s Legacy.” The scholarship is designed to help students in Tankersley’s hometown of Vicksburg, Miss. -– students who might otherwise not be able to afford to attend college. The main criterion is for the recipient to be someone who shares Smith’s spirit to serve others.
Smith’s service to Tankersley didn’t stop when he died, as Tankersley always carries the memory of his friend with him. Many times, that memory motivates Tankersley to work harder -– like when he gets tired of running and conditioning.
“There are days when you don’t feel good,” Tankersley said. “There are days when you don’t want to be out here running.”
It’s times like that when Tankersley remembers his friend Eric, and he’s reminded that Smith wouldn’t complain about such minor discomforts. So Tankersley thinks afresh about what he gets to do for a living, and he’s thankful to God for it.
“I pray that (Eric) gets to enjoy this with me,” Tankersley said. “That every time I step onto the field, he’s with me in some way.”