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Sony helps disabled baseball fan's dream come true

REXBURG, Idaho — Hans Smith is a baseball player, but he's never thrown a ball.

Never swung a bat. Never run the bases.

For that matter, he has never even walked. He's spent his 23 years in a wheelchair.

Hans Smith has cerebral palsy, a disease that affects the motor control centers of the brain, resulting in the loss of varying degrees of muscle control and coordination. Smith can't use his legs and has only limited use of his hands.

Wouldn't you know it — he fell hard for something he can't do: Sports. His passion is baseball and the St. Louis Cardinals. Smith, whose family of 10 moved around frequently while following his father's Air Force career, grew up listening to the games on the radio because they didn't have cable TV.

"I always wanted to play the game, and I would if I could," he says.

Fifteen years ago he discovered another way: video game baseball. Maybe video games are the worst thing to happen to kids since stage parents, but for some people they provide a way to experience a game vicariously.

Smith was so grateful for the PlayStation version of video baseball — MLB: The Show — that last November he wrote a letter to Sony, the game's maker. Here is part of that letter:

My name is Hans Smith. I'm a 23-year-old with cerebral palsy who happens to be A BASEBALL FANATIC! Obviously, my disability prevents me from physically playing baseball in this life. I have a strong belief that I will be able to in the next life, but until then, that is where you guys come in!

My purpose in writing this e-mail is to let all who are involved in the production of the "MLB: The Show" series in any way, know how grateful I am for the time they spend in creating such a true-to-life baseball simulation.

It's true that my body will never be able to throw a baseball, swing a bat, or jump in the air to rob someone of a home run. However, because (your game) is so real, I am able to experience the same adrenaline rush, the same nervousness, the same frustration, the same excitement; EVERY EMOTION. In terms of competition, this is all my body has ever known, so it does not know the difference. You should hear me play; my parents even have to shut the door because I scream so loud!

To keep it realistic, I try to play the actual schedule, restricting myself to one game a day, corresponding with the actual schedule of the team; if we have a night game, I play at night and vice versa. Sometimes, I even go so far as to wear a road jersey or a home jersey while I play.

Thanks again! You really have created "THE FIELD OF DREAMS." "Hey, is this heaven? NO, IT'S MLB THE SHOW!"

Well, what happened next is better than a ninth-inning grand slam. When the letter found its way to Sony's artists, designers and producers, they were moved to tears. One of them called Smith, a student at BYU-Idaho, and told him, "We want to let you know we received your letter, and when we did there was not a dry eye in our department."

Sony, the caller explained, wanted to include Smith — his avatar — in the 2010 edition of its baseball game as a player, as well as utilize him as a consultant. They flew him to San Diego for four days. They took digital photos of his head with a 360-degree camera and recorded his voice, and then made him a player — No. 86 in your program — for the St. Louis Cardinals. Sony will include Smith's avatar in all future editions of its game.

Sony also invited Smith to sit in on board meetings to offer comments and suggestions for improving the game. Then they arranged for Smith, an aspiring radio broadcaster, to do play-by-play commentary in the studio alongside Rex Hudler, voice of the Anaheim Angels, while watching a prerecorded Cubs-Cardinals game.

"They (Sony) are a billion-dollar company with thousands of employees," says Smith. "They didn't have to pay attention to someone like me. I never expected a phone call. They are good people, miracle workers. It shows the power of thankfulness and the power of kindness. It also shows there are alternative ways to accomplish your dreams."

When MLB10: The Show was released earlier this month, Sony sent a copy of the game to Smith in Idaho. He plugged in the game and saw his likeness appear on the screen wearing a Cardinals uniform.

"I was so excited that I couldn't swing the bat," he says. "I just sat there staring at myself standing at the plate with a bat in my hands. It's magic. I always wanted to play, and now I've been given that opportunity whenever I want."

A communications major with an emphasis in broadcasting, Smith hopes to land a job someday doing play-by-play work for a Major League team. He subscribes to the Major League Baseball network, which allows him to watch any game from Rexburg. Sometimes he turns the volume down on the games and does his own play by play for an imaginary audience.

If the broadcasting career doesn't work out, he'll pursue a public relations job for a baseball team or attend law school to work as a lawyer for the players union.

Says Smith, "I'm planning on getting my foot in the door in baseball one way or another — or, I should say, my wheel in the door."

On March 16, BYU-Idaho sponsored a special event in which Smith competed against a friend in "MLB10" at the student center on campus. Some 300 people showed up to watch the event, which included the singing of the National Anthem by live performers.

"It was really noisy," says Smith. "It was great."

And the winner? The Cardinals prevailed 5-4, with pitcher Hans Smith collecting 16 strikeouts and forcing a two-out, ninth-inning pop fly with a runner in scoring position to end the game.

Doug Robinson's column runs Tuesdays. Please send e-mail to drob@desnews.com.