To kick off its 27th annual Business Development Week luncheon, The Greater Pasco Chamber of Commerce brought in a keynote speaker to serve up a different kind of pitch — literally.
It was two-time Olympic softball gold medalist and ESPN lead softball analyst Michele Smith, a Treasure Island resident who has family ties to Pasco County.
Speaking at Spartan Manor in New Port Richey, the softball legend preached a message of perseverance and handling adversity — tying in athletics, broadcasting and the business world.
Smith is familiar with overcoming setbacks. She suffered a career-threatening injury as a teen, but went on to become one of the most accomplished and recognizable figures in women’s softball.
Smith’s first major hurdle came in July 21, 1986, at 19 years old.
Her father was driving her home from an oral surgeon appointment when a sleeping Smith was thrown from the truck when her car door opened on a turn. She was thrown into a roadside post, chopping off part of her elbow bone and tearing her tricep on her left arm, which severed the muscle and nerve endings in her pitching arm.
At the time, she was coming off a superb freshman year at Oklahoma State and was told by doctors she likely would never pitch.
Smith didn’t accept that diagnosis. She was dead-set on making a comeback.
She put it like this: “I think at 19 I didn’t really realize it and I was a little stubborn. I thought, if I’m never going to pitch again, I’m going to make that decision. I’m certainly going to try to come back from this horrific accident, and so I did.”
Indeed, she made a miraculous recovery.
She was back in the circle in time for her sophomore season, after nine long months of rehab, training and physical therapy. She even returned with greater velocity — adding about 3 mph on her fastball.
“I worked very, very hard to get back,” Smith said. “And, I just kept thinking about this one word —perseverance.”
After the car accident, she had a record-setting career at Oklahoma State. She played professional softball in Japan for 16 years. She was starting pitcher for the gold-medalist U.S. Olympic softball team at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta and 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia; and, she was inducted into the National Softball Hall of Fame.
She put those achievements into perspective.
“When people look at me and think, ‘Wow, as an Olympic athlete, you just must be special and this or that.’ No, I worked really hard, and I overcame a lot, and I loved adversity because it brought out the best in me. It really taught me what I’m able to do and what I’m able to accomplish,” she said.
It turns out her first-ever Olympic softball game was 10 years to the day of the car accident.
Walking onto that field for the first time, she said, “was just one of the most special things in my life, knowing that you can overcome anything if you put your mind to it, and surround yourself with the right people.”
Smith has leveraged her noteworthy playing career into a very successful and trailblazing broadcasting career, beginning in 1998 at ESPN. Over the years she has also called games for NBC, CBS Sports Network and TBS, where in 2012 she became the first female broadcaster in history to serve as a commentator for a nationally televised Major League Baseball game.
While the gig is “a lot of fun,” there can be some nerve-wracking moments in live television, Smith said.
“Anything that can go wrong in live television does go wrong,” Smith said, with a chuckle. “A lot of times at home you have no idea that the wheels are falling off the bus.
“I’ve had a lot of very interesting moments as an ESPN analyst, but I do love it,” Smith said.
Learning and memorizing facts and statistics about many teams and new players every year is a challenging aspect of the job.
“It’s a lot of homework, and a lot of studying,” she said.
She also mentioned the increasing popularity of televised women’s softball over the years.
The network has begun broadcasting more college softball in February, in place of some college basketball games, she said.
She also noted that some Women’s College Softball World Series games have been moved to ESPN from alternative ESPN2 because the ratings were exceeding Yankees-Red Sox network game broadcasts.
“Those are big, big monumental moves for our sport, for women’s sports, for girls and women,” she said.
Aside from broadcasting, Smith also has dabbled in commercial real estate. She has purchased and rehabbed old buildings in and around the Treasure Island community.
Smith and her project team have transformed the oldest motel in Treasure Island into a vacation rental property called Sunset Inn & Cottages, rated as the community’s No. 1 hotel by Trip Advisor.
Other projects include turning a former laundromat into an upscale event space in Madeira Beach, and renovating a former St. Petersburg gas station into a craft brewery and BBQ restaurant.
Smith said she takes pride in “taking an old building and making it something where people will come and enjoy themselves, and be able to share very special moments in their lives.”
She encouraged those gathered to take a leap of faith and step outside of their comfort zones, like she did when she took on commercial real estate.
She cited one of her favorite quotes — from LinkedIn co-founder, Reid Hoffman — regarding entrepreneurs and new business owners. He said: “You jump off a cliff and you assemble an airplane on the way down.”
Smith added: “A lot of times you have to disrupt the status quo if you want growth.”
Of course, learning the real estate game has had its share of growing pains and can be humbling, too, she said.
“There will be times I’m calling a game on ESPN and then the next morning I’ll be running around plumbing a toilet or something,” she said, laughing.
Published February 12, 2020