published Saturday, June 9th, 2012

Ron Bush: John Smoltz's success largely a product of failure, faith

Former Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz waves to the crowd after his jersey was retired during a ceremony before a baseball game between the Braves and the Toronto Blue Jays Friday, June 8, 2012, in Atlanta. Smoltz took his place in Braves history on Friday night when the team retired his No. 29. He was inducted into the Braves Hall of Fame earlier in the day.
Former Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz waves to the crowd after his jersey was retired during a ceremony before a baseball game between the Braves and the Toronto Blue Jays Friday, June 8, 2012, in Atlanta. Smoltz took his place in Braves history on Friday night when the team retired his No. 29. He was inducted into the Braves Hall of Fame earlier in the day.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

From failure and faith came fame and some degree of fortune for John Smoltz.

He wasn't looking for the fame. It came with his single-minded determination to succeed and his willingness to adapt to do so -- his belief that with God's help he'd find a way to get it done.

"All I ever wanted to do was win," Smoltz tells us on the second page of his recently released book, "Starting and Closing," written with Don Yaeger.

Smoltz won plenty as a major leaguer pitcher, but he also saved a lot of wins for others, and Friday night at Turner Field he became the third of Atlanta's Big Three pitchers of the 1990s to have his number retired. No. 29 was inducted in the Braves Hall of Fame earlier in the day.

Bobby Cox, who as general manager obtained Smoltz in a trade from Detroit in August 1987 and then got to manage him until 2008, called him Friday "the biggest of the big-game pitchers." Smoltz was 15-4 with four saves and a 2.67 earned run average and 199 strikeouts in 209 postseason innings. The 15 victories are a National League record.

Smoltz also accomplished something that probably no one else will -- more than 200 big-league wins and more than 150 saves. He finished with 213 and 154, to be exact.

He went 24-8 with a 2.94 ERA in 1996, when he won the Cy Young Award, and he had 55 saves in 2002 and totaled 89 the next two years. That was after missing the 2000 season following elbow-ligament-replacement surgery.

But he didn't seek to be a starter-closer combo king. As he points out in his book, the Braves "leveraged" him into a continued bullpen role if he wanted to stay with them after the 2001 season. And he didn't want to leave.

Returning from the surgery, he pitched 59 innings in '01, starting only five games and appearing in 31 others. It was Smoltz's idea then, after some tough starts, to work his way back as a reliever, and he wound up collecting 10 saves.

While Smoltz loved Cox -- as apparently did every other Brave -- the pitcher had a chilly though cordial relationship with longtime general manager, now team president, John Schuerholz. But Schuerholz agreed to let the other John S'z return to the starting rotation in 2005, and Friday night Schuerholz said, "He was a dominant starter. He was a dynamic closer. ... He had the will of a winner."

As Cox said, "He gave all he had, sometimes on guts alone. ... And he gave his all not only to baseball but also to the community of Atlanta."

Smoltz won baseball's Roberto Clemente and Branch Rickey awards for his off-the-field work. Today he runs a Christian school. And he says his book, which focuses on his "one more year" in baseball after the beloved Braves let him go -- the 2009 season in which, again coming off an injury, he pitched for Boston and St. Louis -- is intended for more than athletic reminiscences.

"This book is not so much about finding a measure of success in baseball; it's about growing and learning how to be successful in life," he writes -- "about persevering through hard times, overcoming obstacles and rallying from the uncomfortable depths of failure."

He was "not afraid to fail," he emphasizes, which is how he "reinvented myself in the middle of a season" -- how he changed deliveries, grips, strides and even pitches, such as the knuckleball, to adjust to signals from his body or other circumstances. Unlike many others, he pointed out, he wasn't afraid to bring his warmup experiments into a game.

"If I fail, so be it. I'll learn something that will help me be successful the next time," he writes. "Nothing every seemed to come easy, and I was always battling. ... The lessons were tough to learn, really tough, but they served me well in baseball and in life."

Though burned by the media early in his career, he made a point of "engaging" reporters instead of retreating from them. Despite the possible flak, he let Schuerholz set him up with sports psychologist Jack Llewellyn when he started the 1991 season 2-11.

He doesn't get into the details of his divorce from his first wife, but he acknowledges the pain of that time. And he talks about the joy of a new marriage and the blended family it has brought.

Above all, he credits his Christian faith since 1995 for sustaining him through everything.

"The things that I have accomplished in my life that are viewed as 'great' mostly have to do with the peace that I have in my heart today," Smoltz writes, and it's clear throughout the book that he really means that.

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