“Why?” John Smoltz asks near the beginning of his candid and heartfelt memoir, “Starting and Closing.”
“Why did I come back from Tommy John surgery at age 34 with one year left on my contract? Why did I go to the bullpen after more than decade as a starter … Why did I put my body through all those surgeries and years of rehab? Why did I risk failing for one more year?”
One thing baseball writers have always like about Smoltz is that when you asked him a question, he gave you a straight answer. In this case, he doesn’t wait to be asked. The answers are in the first chapter: “All I ever wanted to do was win,” he said, and “I’m not afraid to fail.”
Smoltz had a Hall of Fame career and if some voters still don’t know that, it’s because they’ve been too lazy to fit together all the pieces of his remarkable 21-year span in the big leagues. For twelve seasons (1988-1999), he was — along with Atlanta teammates Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine — one-third of the best trio of starting pitchers in baseball, helping the Braves dominate first, the National League’s Western division, and then starting in 1994, the NL East.
In 1999, he developed what would have been for many pitchers career-ending arm trouble, underwent surgery, sat out the 2000 season and then in 2001 astonished the experts, his team and even himself by making a dazzling comeback as a relief pitcher. In 2002, he led NL closers with an eye-popping 55 saves. Then in 2005, for no other reason except that he thought he could do it, Smoltz made yet another turnaround, coming back as a starting pitcher and chalking up a 44-24 record over three seasons.
In all, he appeared in 723 games, winning 213 of them, saving 154 more, winning the 1996 Cy Young Award, making eight All-Star teams and playing in three World Series.
“My career,” he writes, “always seemed to invite people to wonder, ‘What the heck is this guy thinking?’ The media, of course, always tried to fill in the blanks and provide some answers and countless reports along the way have attempted to pin me down and define me as a baseball player.”
With the help of Don Yaeger (co-author of a “Game Plan For Life” with John Wooden and “Never Die Easy” with Walter Payton), Smoltz fills in the blanks himself, recounting a story filled with spectacular success, desperate low points and, sometimes, great personal sadness.
In 2007 at age 40, his 16-year marriage to the mother of his four children was coming to an end and he found himself “in a circumstance I deeply regretted and one that I honestly never thought I would contribute to: the staggering statistics of divorce in professional sports …
“One of the most difficult parts was simply coming to grips with the item I had now lost with my kids. This new reality, compounded by the life of a pro baseball player, was the hardest pill to swallow. … I truly miss the everyday opportunities that came with just being a dad.”
With the support of close friends and trusted advisors, he was able to make the transition to single parent and, together with his ex-wife, forge ahead in their children’s best interests. Along the way, he became a devout Christian; you may hear this a lot from professional athletes these days, but Smoltz is one for whom the claim is believable.
He pitched for two more years, remarried and found a life as a fulltime father, color man for Braves games on Peachtree TV (where he’s tells at least one classically corny joke per broadcast) and an analyst for the MLB Network.
And now, he’s an author, one of the few ex-ballplayers who has managed to become more interesting since he gave up the game.
“I faded away from baseball after 2009,” he writes. “I was at peace with where I was and I was grateful for my journey. And that’s really where I remain today. And I haven’t picked up a ball since.”
Except for golf balls. He loves golf so much that, after surgery a couple of years ago, he played an entire round one-handed. “And no kidding,” he confides, “I actually birdied No. 18.” I believe him.
Smoltz doesn’t so much give advice as make suggestions from his own life experience.
“Learn how to rally and trust that you have the ability to find your own measure of success in life,” he writes. “If an accordion-playing kid from Michigan can do it, believe me, so can you.”
Anyone with the courage to leave the starting rotation for the bullpen and to admit that he played the accordion should be taken seriously.
“Starting and Closing: Perseverance, Faith and One More Year”
By John Smoltz with Don Yeager
William Morrow, 293 pages, $14.99
“Southern League: A True Story of Baseball, Civil Rights and the Deep South’s Most Compelling Pennant Race,” by Larry Colton. If you’re a baseball fan who likes assiduously researched and well written accounts of little known periods of baseball history, grab this one about the 1964 Birmingham Barons, then on the verge of extinction in the midst of one of the most violent periods in the Civil Rights movement. Black pitcher John “Blue Moon” Odom and his white teammate, Paul Lindblad, would make the majors, but most of the young Barons would not. Great history with a nice touch of nostalgia. (Grand Central, $27.99)
“Inside the Baseball Hall of Fame,” forward by Brooks Robinson. Check out photos of such treasures as Dizzy Dean’s Stetson hat, the Wonder Boy bat from the film “The Natural,” the Presidential Medal of Freedom presented to catcher Moe Berg for his work as a spy during World War II, the promissory note from Babe Ruth’s sale to the Yankees and the Ted Williams GI Joe doll, wearing an Air Force leather bomber jacket holding a Louisville Slugger bat. Perhaps there are the equivalent treasures for football, but has anyone bothered to collect them? (Simon & Schuster, $35)
“The Victory Season: World War II, the Homecoming and the Birth of Baseball’s Golden Age,” by Robert Weintraub. This splendid story leaps off the page like a newsreel, recreating the baseball season of 1946 when America’s World War II wounds began to heal. (Little Brown, $26.99)
“The Summer of Beer and Whiskey,” by Edward Achorn. Set in the summer of 1883, it follows an enterprising German-born brewer who buys a baseball team for the sole purpose of selling more beer and creates a match made in heaven. (PublicAffairs, $26.99)
“Color Blind: The Forgotten Team that Broke Baseball’s Color Line,” by Tom Dunkel. One of the great untold stories about baseball history, one which almost sounds too good to be true, about an integrated semi-pro baseball team in Bismarck, N.D., during the Great Depression. (Atlantic Monthly Press, $25)