Thursday, January 8, 2009
Give up? It's not in Smoltz's DNA
By Tim Kurkjian ESPN The Magazine
Why would John Smoltz, at age 41, with a surgically repaired shoulder that won't allow him to pitch until perhaps late May, leave home in Atlanta, where he has spent his entire major league career, to pitch perhaps a few months in Boston?
The answer to that question, and to all questions, is always the same with Smoltz: It's the competition, the challenge.
He is, after Cal Ripken Jr., the most competitive person that I've met in nearly 30 years of covering baseball. And, like Ripken, it's not just baseball; it's every sport, it's every game, every contest, every event, everything.
Smoltz is coming off a 2008 season in which he appeared in only six games. He went 3-2 with a 2.57 ERA over 28 innings.
On a hot day July day at Joe Robbie Stadium in Florida many years ago, Smoltz accosted me inside the Marlins clubhouse. "I bet I've walked more times than any active pitcher," he said, urgently. "I know I have. Where can I find that? Can you find that?" Most walks by a pitcher on offense? Who would care? But Smoltz had to know; he had to be first. It was just another category for him to be the best in. He once purchased a sleep chamber so he could sleep better than anyone.
He has always been that way. It began with the accordion, then it was basketball -- he could have played at Michigan State -- and baseball; someday he'll be elected to the Hall of Fame. Ex-teammate Tom Glavine once said: "John has to win every football pool. I say, 'John, why get involved when we know you're going to win anyway? It's a donation.'"
The larger the game, the higher the prize, the better Smoltz likes it and the better he performs. That's why he is one of the best big-game pitchers of all time. That's why he went from a terrific starting pitcher to a 50-save closer, then back to a successful starter; he is the only pitcher ever to start even one game at any point following a 50-save season. "I've got big shoulders. I want it on my shoulders," he once said. "There can be some bad territory that comes with that, but I like that territory: 25 guys depending on me. I love that."
Smoltz has that fire in everything he does. There is golf; he is a scratch golfer. "Nothing is impossible to him on the golf course," Glavine said. "If he has a terrible front nine, he'll want to bet you that he'll go 3-under on the back." One summer, he played in a tournament which, of course, his team won. But there was enough daylight left for three more holes, so Smoltz raced through the clubhouse looking for someone who wanted to play.
Former Braves coach Ned Yost played. "And I won 25 bucks from Smoltzy, one of the greatest days of my life," Yost said. But Yost is a lousy golfer; how did he win? "Well, I had two other guys on my team -- they were really good -- and we were playing John three against one," Yost said. "He was taking all comers. We split the first two holes, we won the last. It was dark at the end. Smoltzy would never be on the team of three against one. Never."
Smoltz once played a good friend, also a very competitive guy, in pingpong. Smoltz won.
"I bet I can beat you playing left-handed," Smoltz said.
Then he did.
"I bet I can beat you playing from my knees," Smoltz said.
Then he did.
And then there was the Christmas party many years ago at third baseman Chipper Jones' house. Jones had a hoop in the back yard, so Smoltz challenged anyone to a game of H-O-R-S-E. Again, Yost agreed to play. So there they were, in street clothes, playing under the lights at 10:30 p.m. Yost, who is not a good basketball player, made a couple of lucky shots from the deck and another prayer from the street. "I had him beat," Yost said. "It would have been the greatest athletic feat of my career then I went into full panic mode. He made some shots and beat me." Said Glavine: "If Ned had won, John would have stayed all night until he won. John couldn't go home on that note. John is always looking for an area where he can excel. Then he loves to tell you that he's the best."
Smoltz smiled. "I only brag about things I'm no good at," he said. "I never brag about pitching."
The competitiveness comes from Smoltz's father -- a salesman, music teacher and accordion player. "He didn't let me beat him in anything until I was much older," Smoltz said. Playing the accordion taught Smoltz "discipline. I practiced for hours and hours and hours. From the accordion, I learned how to motivate myself by myself. I didn't need anyone or anything to motivate me. God blessed me that way. You can't teach just any kid to be like that."
Smoltz started playing the accordion when he was 4 years old. Four! Motivating himself? Discipline at 4? No 4-year-old can do anything for hours at a time.
He is intense about everything. "Fierce," former teammate Norm Charlton once said. "Typical type-A personality. When he's not pitching, he's the jokester, the clown. But when he's pitching, the happy-go-lucky look is replaced by that cold stare."
Smoltz has described himself as "not afraid to fail," adding: "I've been humbled in this game. I've experienced humility. If you want to blame me, blame me. I like the pressure. I want the pressure on me. I'm not as good when there's a mismatch, not a David-and-Goliath thing, but when there's a big-time challenge, I'm ready for it. All these games I play with myself, and with others, allows me to raise my game. And God gave me a gift to be calm in those big situations."
He is calm because he is so prepared. The 4-year-old who played the accordion is now the 41-year-old with a Hall of Fame résumé and, still, the desire to pitch and compete. He loves the challenge, and now the challenge is to bounce back from another surgery, switch to a new town and a new league, and help the Red Sox win another World Series. The odds are probably against him, but they've been against him many times. But don't bet against him.
That is one of the many things that we have learned about John Smoltz.
And, oh yes, when Smoltz asked that day in Florida about having the most walks among pitchers, he did.
"I knew it," he said.
John Smoltz had won again.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback on May 27. Click here to order a copy.