One of the most dangerous baserunners for the City College baseball team dares opposing pitchers to make a move, clapping and taking huge leads with bravado bordering on recklessness.

The only thing opponents can do to make it worse is look in her direction.

“I just feel like she knows that she can defy the odds.”

Rahkeem Smith, Rocksann's older brother

They’ll see Rocksann Smith, her hair tied back in a bun and eye black smeared down her cheeks, staring back. She has seen many high school boys get wobbly knees when they realize they’re about to give up a stolen base to a girl.

This is one instance when Smith, who has played baseball for nearly a decade, leans into being an outlier.

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“It gets in their head when I play baseball, because they see a girl on the base and think, ‘Oh, I can’t let this girl do that,’” she said. “I feel like it’s really fun knowing that I have that over them.”

Knights coach Mark Miazga can’t remember a time when he’s seen Smith, a team captain, get picked off, even though she might be halfway to second base by the time the pitcher gets set on the mound. At a recent game against a less experienced team, Smith stole second and third on consecutive pitches — the umpire later told her she could have stolen them both in one go.

It has taken Smith, an 18-year-old senior, years to find her comfort zone in baseball, a sport she has loved for its camaraderie, for its challenge and for how important it is for her entire family.

It is fitting that her best skill is how quickly and aggressively she runs, because she is preparing for her biggest uphill battle yet. Smith wants to play baseball in college. If you are a college baseball coach reading this, she wants to talk to you about walking on to your team.

After all she has been through to get to where she is, she’s not ready for her career to end.

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“I don’t want to have my prime in high school,” she told me recently. “It’s been a part of our lives since we’ve been young — it doesn’t feel right not doing it.”

The family pastime

This is a story about standing out but also about fitting in. Smith plays baseball for the same reason many boys do. Her brothers did it first.

Her older brother, Rahkeem (now 19), pulled Rocksann out of the stands when he needed a throwing partner. Each time he tossed her the ball, she threw it back harder. She was 9.

Sibling teammates, Rocksann Smith (No. 2) and Rahniah Smith (No. 6), of the Baltimore City College Knights Varsity Baseball Team watch their team at bat against Dunbar on 4/26/2024 in Baltimore, MD.
Rocksann Smith (right) and her brother Rahniah Smith are close on the field for Baltimore City College, but they do their share of bickering. (Eric Thompson/For the Baltimore Banner)

One of Rahkeem’s coaches saw out of the corner of his eye how fast the ball was going back and forth: “Who’s throwing it?” he shouted. She was playing baseball not long after.

Rocksann is arguably one of City College’s most impressive athletes: a sprinter and high jumper in track who ran at Adidas nationals in March, and a captain of the volleyball team. With every baseball team she’s ever been on, Smith has been one of the fastest and most resilient runners.

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Her spot this year is starting center fielder, where she is known as perhaps City’s best defensive player — and where she plays alongside her 16-year-old brother, Rahniah, who starts in left field. In a recent game against St. Mary’s, Rocksann broke early on a long fly ball to center but she misjudged it and it sailed deeper.

“It was all the way over her head,” Rahniah said. “She just jumped and caught it. I don’t know how she did that.”

Rahniah is one of the team’s best hitters, capable of knocking home runs into the bushes that double as City’s outfield wall. Rocksann and Rahniah are hitting partners, throwing partners — seemingly always pairing off.

They are, however, still brother and sister. When Rahniah plays up in the outfield, Rocksann tells him to play back. They bicker over who should make the catch when a ball sails between them. They argue about hitting approach.

“We just argue a lot,” Rahniah said.

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But they are, first and foremost, each other’s biggest supporters. Rahniah may be one of the Knights’ most talented players, but his emotions can throttle back and forth depending on what happens at the plate. Rocksann is often the one who brings him back to earth. “He got attitude on him when things don’t go his way, when it doesn’t work out — I just remind him to relax, that it’s a part of baseball.”

But sometimes Rocksann needs someone to lean on, too. When she became frustrated and nearly left the sport for good, she turned to him.

“I was like, ‘Rahniah, I need you to help me,” she said. “If you see me getting in my head, I need you to tell me to get out of it.’ That’s what our bond is. We get each other out of each other’s heads.”

The long shot

It’s undoubtedly tough for women to make it in college baseball, but it is not impossible — and Maryland has a more progressive history than most states.

The first woman ever to walk on to an NCAA team was Julie Croteau, a pitcher for St. Mary’s College of Maryland in 1989. Today, Remi Schaber is a pitcher for Hood College in Frederick, one of a handful of women in North America who plays college baseball – a single-digit figure any given year. It is rare to receive a full scholarship in college baseball as is, making it even tougher for women to break into the sport.

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The typical reaction Smith hears about her future is that she should simply switch to softball, a sport that she has never played at an organized level. “She don’t like when people say that,” Rahniah said.

The Smiths live in Rosedale, and while baseball within the city can result in lopsided scores (the Knights often win their city games by double-digit margins), softball was even less appealing to Rocksann. Although she acknowledges that college softball is much more compelling than the softball she grew up around, making baseball work is her top priority.

Rocksann Smith (No. 2) of the Baltimore City College Knights Varsity Baseball Team laughs along with her teammates during their game against Dunbar on 4/26/2024 in Baltimore, MD.
Rocksann Smith displays leadership skills that made her a choice for team captain this season. (Eric Thompson/for the Baltimore Banner)

Finding opportunity can be difficult in a sport that favors the affluent. Players who go to big baseball showcases tend to get more recruiting interest. Smith plays for Vision Select, a travel team based in West Baltimore, but she said she has not been able to go to the biggest events. After she played a tournament in Kentucky last summer, an NCAA Division II coach told her she had potential, but she was worried about playing far from home.

Like many graduating seniors, Smith is tied up in the complicated decision process for college as she awaits financial aid opportunities. She has emailed coaches about walk-on opportunities. Rahkeem, who spent the last year at Delaware State on an athletic scholarship, sent some of her film to the school’s baseball coach.

“I just feel like she knows that she can defy the odds,” Rahkeem said. “Her taking this path, she has to work hard. She works harder than a lot of other guys. She can achieve that just by staying humble and worrying about yourself.”

Her addiction to the sport was formed on Vision Select, where she played with Rahniah, Rahkeem and two of her cousins who attended Poly. To Rocksann, summer is synonymous with baseball, and she hasn’t been deterred by the COVID-19 pandemic or gender expectations. She doesn’t look up to major league players as much as her own family members, she said. One of the players she’s tried to emulate is her brother.

She’s not trying to prove a point — she just loves the game. And she loves the progress she’s made.

“At first I used to be really hard on myself. With me being the only girl, I was like, ‘I need to be like them,’” she said. “But I found my groove with everything, and I’ve done that to the best of my abilities.”

She loves playing with her cousins. She loves playing against them, too. In City’s matchups with Poly, a championship unto itself between Baltimore’s rival high schools, they don’t talk to their cousin in the lead-up: “That’s when we try to become enemies and attack,” Rahniah said.

Sticking with it

Smith’s baseball journey has hardly been a straight path. At least twice in high school, her baseball career has been in serious jeopardy — by her own hand, no less.

She was one of just three freshmen in 2021, coming out of the pandemic, to try out for City baseball. Miazga recognized her talent, putting her in as a pinch runner even though she was not a typical starter. But the next year she skipped baseball in favor of track. She has often found it mentally draining, she acknowledged, not to constantly compare herself to the boys.

When Rahniah enrolled at City, however, he tapped his sister to be his teammate.

“Rahniah told me I had to do it,” she said. “It was around the time I was starting to doubt myself, but coming out for the team, playing with Rahniah, brought that ease and fun back to the game.”

This year, Miazga was prepared to make Rocksann a team captain — the only problem was that she was not around. She was splitting time between baseball and the end of indoor track at the start of the season. (Rocksann, who is trying to decide among pursuing kinesiology, business and African American studies in college, admits she can be indecisive.)

But Miazga also paired Rocksann with a teammate who was essentially a newcomer to baseball. He shadowed her in center field, learning the fundamentals of the position. One day before she headed to track practice, Rocksann told Miazga her teammate was ready to play in a game.

“And he was ready — that’s the kind of thing she’s able to do,” Miazga said. “She’s able to lift up other people as a result of her leadership, and that’s the best type of leader.”

Since Smith committed to competing on the team (after which she was, in fact, named captain), she’s had an outstanding year. In her first appearance on the mound, she got a quick 1-2-3 inning. Smith is learning not to put a ceiling on what she can do.

“I know I’m one of the strongest people [on the team], but I need to get out of my head,” she said. “It’s just that comparison that I’ve always worked with. Once I get that out of the way, I’m better at it.”

It is likely, however, that this is the last ride for the Smiths together on the baseball field. Once the high school season is over, they’re planning to play for Vision Select in the summer, but every memory they make together is increasingly precious. Even when she gets on his back.

“I think I’m going to miss her feedback,” Rahniah said. “Even though she might come off a little bit rough sometimes, her feedback is spot on.”

If this is it for Rocksann, she will miss it all. But she hopes she doesn’t have to. She hopes someone will give her a chance — a chance she is willing to earn by working hard, the way she always has.

“I’m gonna see how far I can take things with my baseball career,” she said.

Give her a lead, and Smith will run with it.

Kyle joined The Baltimore Banner in 2023 as a sports columnist. He previously covered the L.A. Lakers for The Orange County Register and myriad sports at The Salt Lake Tribune. He’s a Mt. Hebron High and University of Maryland alum.

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