Bob is a longtime member of the Florida sports media, having served as a reporter and copy editor for more than 30 years. His true sports passion, however, is the history of the various games, exhibited by his in-depth book reviews and hobby of collecting cards and other sports memorabilia. He blogs for TBO.com on both subjects, transferring his work for the Tampa Tribune to the realm of cyberspace.
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Smoltz shares an inspirational journey
Posted May 13, 2012 by Bob D'Angelo
Updated May 13, 2012 at 07:47 PM
John Smoltz originally did not want to write a book, but after some reflection, the eight-time all-star pitcher realized it was a chance to discuss something more meaningful than just baseball.
“I feel a burden to write this book,” Smoltz notes in the opening chapter of “Starting and Closing: Perseverance, Faith, and One More Year” (William Morrow, $26.99, hardback, 294 pages).
Burdensome to Smoltz, perhaps, but not to the reader.
This autobiography, co-written with veteran author Don Yaeger, is different in its approach and scope. This is not a story-of-my-life book in the traditional sense. The subject matter is mainly Smoltz’s final season in the majors, as he attempted to return from surgery for the fifth time. But he uses the insights gleaned from a 21-year career in the majors — 213 victories, 154 saves, one Cy Young Award — to put that 2009 season into perspective.
What I find so refreshing about “Starting and Closing” is Smoltz’s humility. He has the numbers and achievements, and very easily could have dwelled on his many successes. Anyone would be proud to play on a team that won 14 consecutive division titles, as the Atlanta Braves did under manager Bobby Cox. But Smoltz writes about his camaraderie with his fellow Braves pitchers, his revelation at a Bennigan’s restaurant when he became a born-again Christian, and his divorce from his first wife and subsequent marriage to Kathryn, his current spouse. He also discusses how he helped form King’s Ridge Christian School in Atlanta.
Smoltz does not hit the reader over the head with his Christian beliefs, but I do think one passage is revealing. Before he “truly” became a Christian, Smoltz confessed that “all I was doing was putting up a good Christian front.”
“From the outside, everything looked and sounded really good,” he writes. “On the inside, when it came down to my motivations, my reasons for doing things, it wasn’t adding up.”
Smoltz readjusted his life around and found peace, and that helped him relax and turn in some of his finest seasons with the Braves, including 1996, when he went 24-8 with a 2.94 ERA and won the National League Cy Young Award.
There is plenty of baseball in this book, too. Smoltz writes about his often uneasy relationship with Braves general manager John Schuerholz (“It’s safe to say we didn’t talk too much, but it’s not like we despised each other either.”) He explains why Cox has been so successful as a manager. I always recall watching Cox sitting on the bench in the Braves’ dugout, looking like he was ready to take a nap. That, of course, was untrue. You don’t win 14 division titles and a World Series title by snoozing between innings.
“Bobby’s moves were always calculated, made with the intention of preserving a lead, preserving his athletes, or generating some offense when the run-support well had run dry,” Smoltz writes. “He knew things the rest of us didn’t know, saw things even the best in the game didn’t see.
“This is what good managers do.”
Smoltz writes about the differences between starting and relieving, and discusses his fight to return to the starting rotation despite his success as the Braves closer (he saved 55 games in 2002, followed by seasons of 45 and 44 saves in 2003 and ’04, respectively).
Coming out of the bullpen was a radical change from Smoltz’s desire for structure.
“Closing took away one of the things I liked most about starting,” he writes. “Knowing when I was pitching next.”
He improved as a reliever, although there were some hairy moments; for example, walking in from the bullpen and hearing ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” being played as his “walk-in” song. “I started laughing on my way out to the mound,” he writes.
The team finally settled on the “Star Wars” theme, then switched to AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” when he stepped from the outfield grass to the infield.
Smoltz is now retired from the game, but has opened a new chapter as a broadcaster and still harbors an ambition to play professional golf on the Champions Tour. Within the next five years, two of his Braves pitching teammates, Greg Maddux (355 wins) and Tom Glavine (305 wins), will be eligible for election to the Hall of Fame. So will Smoltz. It is not a stretch to suggest that all three pitchers will be enshrined in Cooperstown someday.
Regardless of what happens, Smoltz writes that he will follow the same principles that have sustained him in life.
“Have dreams and chase them. Don’t be afraid to fail,” he writes. “Learn how to rally, and trust that you have the ability to find your own measure of success in life.”
And, “in all moments, look up.”
That’s easy to do, since Smoltz has written an engaging, uplifting book.