Golden Spikes-Losing Hagen Smith Deserved More Love Than He Received at Arkansas

Hagen Smith, Arkansas baseball, Arkansas vs Kansas State, Fayetteville Regional, NCAA Tournament
photo credit: Craven Whitlow

One of the most bummer things about covering college sports is the myopia of those for whom we write. Geography creates loyalty, which is natural, but that loyalty dissipates with individuals as years progress. Loyalty to the brand, though – that stays.

The most recent case of this, the thing that has brought this column to life, is the casual dismissal of and the shoulder shrug the Arkansas fan base has about Hagen Smith.

Smith is, for this writer’s money, the greatest player in Arkansas baseball history (look at his resume, for crying out loud) and it’s incredible how few people care. Arkansas’ baseball season overshadowed Smith’s brilliance locally. National pundits see it. Baseball fans in general see it. The MLB sees it.

And this week, the folks who choose the best in college baseball saw it when they named him National Pitcher of the Year. In his final appearance in the national spotlight, as a Razorback at least, Smith lost the Golden Spikes Award to Georgia’s Charlie Condon on Saturday.

But instead of talking about how great Smith is and how lucky those of us in and around Fayetteville were to watch him once a week from February to June, the online spaces can seemingly only talk about Arkansas’ shortcomings as a team and perhaps how the last time Smith took the mound just so happened to be his worst outing of the season.

The talk has been exacerbated by Arkansas’ struggles in its other sports this year. Football was poor. Basketball was sub-par. Softball lost in its hosted Regional just before. Heck, even earlier this month, the No. 1-ranked Arkansas men’s track team finished seventh at the NCAA Championships. When things are going bad, we tend to look for more bad instead of focusing on the good.

And, baby, Smith was more than good. 

Other Recent Arkansas Baseball Legends

In just three seasons in Fayetteville, the 6-foot-3 left-hander set the school record for strikeouts. During his final two seasons alone, he allowed just 25 extra-base hits in more than 150 innings. That’s 450 outs and exactly 270 of them came via the strikeout. Just those 270 punchouts would rank Smith fourth all-time at a school that has been dynamite at baseball for more than 40 years.

Just like that, with a Thanos-like snap of the fingers, Smith will be all but forgotten. It always happens when Razorbacks leave Fayetteville, especially those who were undervalued when they donned an Arkansas uniform. Consider what two of the other contenders in the conversation for Arkansas’ all-time best in baseball are doing and whether you, or people you know who are big Hogs fans, know what they’re doing.

Kevin Kopps. Legend. The man had the best individual season in Arkansas baseball history in 2021. Over the course of 33 games his senior season, Kopps held a 0.90 earned-run average with 131 strikeouts in 89 2/3 innings. He gave up just five home runs and walked only 18 batters. Arkansas’ season ended in the Super Regionals at home against North Carolina State.

Without looking it up, what’s Kopps up to now?

Andrew Benintendi. Also a Golden Spikes Award winner. His sophomore season with the Diamond Hogs in 2015 resulted in 35 extra-base hits, 20 home runs, 57 RBI, 24 stolen bases and an OPS of 1.205. They’re not Charlie Condon numbers this year for Georgia, but Benny Baseball also played in an era when launch angles weren’t all the rage.

Where’s Benintendi holing up these days?

Perhaps you knew this. He’s been a Major Leaguer since 2016, having spent less than a year, really, in the minors. Things aren’t reaching the heights scouts hoped, though, when he was called the No. 1 prospect in all of baseball ahead of that 2016 season. Benintendi is slashing .206/.248/.309 for the last-place White Sox.

Kopps has hit a wall in Triple-A in the San Diego Padres system. He carries a 6.34 ERA and nearly a 2.00 WHIP in 24 games for El Paso. Kopps isn’t on the Padres’ 40-man roster, either, suggesting even a cup of coffee in The Show is a long-shot.

Don’t Forget About Hagen Smith

At this point, the two are more forgotten by Razorbacks Nation than they should be. Some of that is only natural. Time passes, memories fade. Kopps and Benintendi would certainly be cheered for if they returned to Fayetteville to, say, throw out a first pitch at a Diamond Hogs game or show up during a TV timeout during a football game with all their former teammates for a showcase. But once someone moves on from the UA, they almost don’t matter anymore. At least, when they move on to that proverbial next chapter.

Fans still remember Eric Musselman. They remember KJ Jefferson. They remembered Malik Monk, until he went pro. Carrying a weight of animus keeps people emotionally involved. The love, though, that fades. Michael Qualls. Jonathan Williams. Names rarely mentioned in Arkansas lore, despite outstanding collegiate careers.

Smith will receive cheers when he’s taken in the Top 10 in next month’s MLB Draft. But ask someone in the summer of 2025 where Smith is playing and you might bat .300 on responses. If you’re lucky.

The whole thing is understandable. Saddening, though. Culture is built such to be immediately consumable then tossed aside. Once we have had our fill of something or someone, toss ’em out. Little else explains this strange sensation some Arkansas fans have with wanting to get rid of Dave Van Horn. Thankfully, sanity is prevailing more often than not in there.

Pro athletes don’t have this. John Elway is beloved in Denver. Emmitt Smith in Dallas. Heck, Rod Smith is beloved in Denver. Jay Novacek in Dallas. Players need not be superstars for their professional sports teams’ fan bases to adore them. College is strangely different. 

And it’s a real shame when someone like Smith, a once-in-a-generation player, Arkansas’ best all-time, comes along and then disappears seemingly just as quickly.

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Hear from Hagen Smith repping Arkansas:

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