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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

John Smoltz- Starting and Closing

Starting and Closing: Perseverance, Faith & One More Year by John Smoltz with Don Yaeger
Published by William Morrow, ISBN 978062120540
Hardcover, $26.99

John Smoltz is one of the best pitchers to ever play major league baseball. For over twenty years he pitched for the Atlanta Braves, chosen eight times for the All-Star team and winning the Cy Young Award for best pitcher in 1996.

He pitched in the starting rotation for fourteen years when an injury caused him to move to the bullpen and become a relief pitcher. After three years in the bullpen, he asked to rejoin the starting rotation. Many people, particularly in the sports media, asked him why he did this. His response: Why not?

Smoltz begins the book with three things people need to know about him:
1. All he ever wanted to do was win
2. He's not afraid to fail
3. He never did anything in his baseball career just to set a record, or to be able to say that no one else has done what he has done

Smoltz lived in Michigan, and his grandfather worked at the Detroit Tigers stadium. Young John grew up going to Tigers games, and he loved the Tigers. He was thrilled to be drafted by his hometown Tigers to play baseball, and disappointed when they soon traded him to the Atlanta Braves.

His disappointed turned to happiness when he realized that the Braves were willing to work with him, that they valued their young players and worked hard to make him a successful pitcher. (The Braves are  known for their excellent farm system.)

Injuries plagued Smoltz throughout his career, and he pushed his body through the pain, hoping to avoid Tommy John surgery, which could end his baseball career. He eventually had the surgery, but with his amazing work ethic, he began a grueling rehab program and came back to pitch again, although as a closer.

As a person who worked best with a steady routine, Smoltz found it difficult to get used to the unpredictability of being a reliever. As a starter, he knew which day he would pitch, so his mind was set. He could play his favorite hobby, golf, on his off-days. He said that "by going to the bullpen, I sacrificed two things that really helped me tick; knowing what was coming and feeling like I was in control."

Besides baseball, two other things motivated Smoltz: golf and being a born-again Christian. He described the moment he knew that his relationship with God had to change, and how his life changed for the better because of it. He soon became a popular speaker at 'baseball church' gatherings, and later founded a Christian school in an Atlanta suburb.

Now that he is retired, Smoltz has set his sights on joining the Champions Tour in golf , and Tiger Woods has said that publicly that Smoltz is the best amateur golfer he has seen. Smoltz frequently played golf with his pitching teammates, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux, and you can feel the joy on the pages where describes their bonding over golf.

Smoltz was not re-signed by the Braves after twenty years, and he joined the Boston Red Sox for a final season. He describes the sadness he felt at leaving the team he helped to bring to 14 post-season playoffs, although with only one World Series title. I found his analysis of the toll that pitching in so many consecutive post-seasons took interesting, and I have to say it never occurred to me how damaging it could be.

Boston was a disaster, and Smoltz was happy to be picked by up the St. Louis Cardinals after the Red Sox released him halfway through the season. He was happy to be able to contribute to the Cardinals playoff run, but wistfully says that he wished he could have ended his career in Atlanta.

Starting & Closing is not your typical sports memoir; Smoltz really concentrates on his last season, sprinkling little parts of his life throughout. You get a real feel for what makes this intriguing man tick, why he was so successful in baseball although plagued with injuries, and how his changed relationship with God made him a better man and a better pitcher.

rating 4 of 5


  1. I'm a lifelong Braves fan, and I loved watching Smoltz pitch. This looks like an interesting read--thanks for sharing!

    1. My son is a big Braves fan too. For his 16th birthday we took him to Atlanta for a series and when Smoltz came in relief to pitch, the stadium went crazy. I've never heard such thunderous applause, even at a Springsteen show. It was incredible!