John Smoltz could have been one hell of an accordion player. But instead of pursuing the interests of his musically inclined parents, he set down the squeezebox at age 7, announced to his family that he was going to be a professional athlete — and then did it.
Drafted by the Detroit Tigers out of high school, Smoltz was traded as a minor leaguer to the Atlanta Braves, broke into the bigs in 1988, and racked up 157 wins over the next 11 seasons. Then he blew out his elbow, rehabbed and redefined his career as one of the game's dominant closers — then went back to the starting rotation, where he racked up 44 more wins between 2005 and 2007. Smoltz finished his 21-year career as the first pitcher in Major League history with 200 wins and 150 saves, a big notch in a belt that also includes eight All Star Game appearances and the 1996 NL Cy Young Award. So how does a guy who would have seemed more likely to be the linchpin of a traveling polka outfit get into Cooperstown? Not without the benefit of self-confidence, perseverance, and a few gems of life lessons picked up along the way. Here's what he learned during his now Hall-of-Fame career.
How to compete
From his father, who worked two and three jobs to support the family — in addition to playing the accordion in a band — Smoltz learned the value of hard work. "When we competed and played games, he always wanted to beat me. I would be like five, seven, it didn't matter," says Smoltz, who longed for the day when he would be big enough to turn the tables on him. "And we got there."
How to pitch
Smoltz, now an analyst at MLB Network, counts himself lucky to have grown up before kids specialized in sports at an early age. Like every other kid of his generation, Smoltz played a lot of catch long before he even considered the technicalities of pitching. "Nobody [today] goes out and just plays catch and throws," Smoltz says. "I can't tell you how many throws I made against just a brick wall. We played catch and threw a baseball. We didn't pitch."
How to pitch… again
Smoltz came up in the Tigers' farm system at a time when a pitching coach that rotated between the organization's different minor-league teams was the best developmental guidance the franchise offered its young guns. By the time he was traded to the Braves, Smoltz's delivery had been tinkered with under haphazard direction and was generally a wreck. Then he met Leo Mazzone, the Braves' legendary pitching coach. "He simplified everything," says Smoltz. "I'll never forget it, he says, 'Give me your best athletic delivery.' I threw it, and he says, 'That's perfect.'" Just like that, it was like Smoltz was a kid again, just throwing and catching.
How to be a good teammate
It's pretty simple, says Smoltz: show up on time, be prepared, care about the guys you work with. When Smoltz was a Tigers prospect, Alan Trammell approached him in the clubhouse and told him "Whatever I can do for you while you're here, I'm Alan Trammell." That generosity of character from an established team leader — and a guy the Michigan-bred Smoltz idolized as a kid — made Smoltz want to return that favor to the teammates around him. "I wanted to be counted on. I wanted to be dependable. I wanted to be available."
How to remember how good you are
Specifically, how to remember your confidence. In 1991, Smoltz was struggling on the mound. He was a new father, unhappy with his contract, and playing with a chip on his shoulder — and playing poorly. So he went to see sports psychologist Jack Llewelyn, who put together a two-minute reel of Smoltz's best performances. Just like that, Smoltz says, he remembered his ability and rediscovered his confidence. Smoltz says Llewelyn's influence was overblown by the media, but the results were impressive: Smoltz was 2–11 that season before visiting Llewelyn, 12–2 the rest of the way.
How to support the team
Smoltz's career arc would have made Dave Puddy weep manly tears of admiration. He moved to the bullpen after Tommy John surgery in 2001 — not without trepidation, and after declining an offer to join the Yankees as a starter. "Going to the pen was something I had to learn to do. It wasn't something I wanted to do. If it made our team better, I was all in." Then, after embracing the change and spending three years as one of baseball's best closers, he rejoined the Braves' starting staff — once again, not without trepidation, having found comfort in his new role. "If I was thinking about the Hall of Fame, I would have stayed in my nice little comfort zone," Smoltz says. "Nobody would've done what I did from a selfish standpoint."
How to lose with pride
"To be honest with you, the two greatest games I ever pitched resulted in losses," says Smoltz. Not just any losses — games that ultimately lost World Series titles. The first was Game 7 in 1991, in which Smoltz pitched 7 1/3 innings shutout on three-days rest before the Braves lost in the bottom of the 10th, 1–0. The second was Game 5 in 1996, in which Smoltz faced off against the Yankees' Andy Pettitte with the World Series tied at two games each. "I physically was done after the first inning," Smoltz says. Facing what he calls "the stingiest baseball team I ever faced in my life," he got through it with the help of fellow staff ace Tom Glavine, who kept him pumped up in between innings, urging him to just keep faking it. "Somehow willed it through eight innings," he admits. Smoltz gave up one unearned run, the Yankees won 1–0, and took the series in Game 6 for their first of four World Series titles in five years.
How to enjoy the ride
Somewhere around the midway point of his career, Smoltz's grandmother asked why he never smiled when he played. At first he thought she didn't understand the pressures of being a team leader, of performing under the lights. But then he realized, "She was right. I realized after that, at some point of every game I could take time to enjoy what I'm doing."
Watch the Hall of Fame induction ceremony live on MLB Network on Sunday, July 26.
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