VERO BEACH, FLA. — In his first six years in professional baseball, Greg Smith's role model was the Chicago Cubs' Ryne Sandberg.
The all-star also was Smith's biggest roadblock to the major leagues.
Sandberg is still a role model for the young infielder, but this spring he no longer stands between Smith and the majors.
Smith, a 23-year-old Sykesville native, finally has the opportunity to move upthe ladder after being traded over the winter by the Cubs to the LosAngeles Dodgers.
There's plenty of competition in the Dodgers' spring training camp, but Smith is no longer overshadowed by Sandberg.
"I believe there's an open door for me," said Smith, who was traded for shortstop Jose Vizcalno.
"It's still that same road, except a Hall of Famer isn't in front of me."
That road took at least a temporary detour Sunday, when Smith was sent down to Class AAA Albuquerque after struggling at the plate this spring. He had only two hits in 17 at-bats.
But his smooth work on defense impressed the Dodgers coaches, who still want him to finish the spring playing in the major-league exhibition games.
"He's got a good arm and good quickness," said Dodgers coach Bill Russell.
"We traded a good young player for him in Jose, so you know we like him."
Watching Smith warm up before a recent Dodgers-Braves game, Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox said the Dodgers weren't the only team that liked him.
"We werereal interested in him," said Cox. "The Dodgers got the best part ofthat trade."
Smith, who signed with the Cubs out of Glenelg High in 1985, spent six seasons in the Cubs' minor-league system building a reputation as a good hitter and glove man.
The problem was that no matter how well he played, he wasn't going to move out Sandberg.
Second base with the Cubs was something of a private club, with Sandberg an 800-pound bouncer minding the door -- Smith wasn't getting in.
Smith also played shortstop from time to time, but the Cubs decided to switch him permanently to second base after arm injuries hampered his ability to make throws from deep in the hole.
Now, it's Dodgers starting second baseman Juan Samuel and utility man Mike Sharperson who are among those ahead of Smith -- solid players, but not unbeatable.
Smith said he benefited from playing with Sandberg each spring, learning the All-Star's approach to the game.
"It's not somuch things he shared with me, but what I got from his attitude and the way he works," Smith said.
"Now that I'm out of there, I can see the kind of example he was for a young player.
"You wouldn't hear much out of him, but you'd see plenty. He was all about personality and character. I realized I could make that work for me."
Smith tries to project Sandberg's quiet, professional approach to playing. Russell said it shows.
"He carries himself real well out there," Russell said. "He has the same personality and carries himself (like Sandberg)."
Smith cautioned that he's not trying to be Sandberg. "You can't mold yourself after someone else," he said.
"There's onlyone Ryne Sandberg, and there's only one Greg
He's doing fine on his own. He has steadily improved his hitting each season, batting .296 for Class AA Charlotte in 1989 and .291 last year with Class AAA Iowa.
He averaged 29 stolen bases over the past four seasons.
He also learned to separate success and failure on the field from the rest of his life.
"Your performance on the field has nothing to do with the person you are," said Smith, who hit .205 in a September call-up with the Cubs in 1990.
"If I tied my self-esteem tohow I perform, I'd be hurting because this game is 70 percent failure."
Despite starting the season in Class AAA, he remains upbeat about his prospects as a Dodger.
"I'm just excited to see what's going to happen," he said.
"There's no telling what I'm capable of doing at the big league level or any other level. I'm looking forward to it."
Dan Hughes is a sportswriter for the Vero Beach Press-Journal.