Atlanta’s John Smoltz is the only baseball pitcher in history to top 200 wins as a starter and 150 saves as a closer. A Cy Young Award winner in 1996, he was part of what many consider the greatest starting rotation in history, along with Atlanta Braves teammates Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. He’s also a world-class golfer who’s held his own with Tiger Woods, a good friend of comedian Jeff Foxworthy, the founder of Kings Ridge Christian School in Atlanta, and he can play the accordion.
So it’s surprising how much of his new memoir is about failure. “Starting and Closing: Perseverance, Faith, and One More Year” (William Morrow), written with Don Yaeger, contains plenty of baseball stories but also plenty of personal adversity, as Smoltz faced and overcame potentially career-ending injuries. “The greater I fail, the more I learn,” he writes.
Smoltz, who’ll turn 45 on May 15, is embarking on a book promotion tour. On Thursday, May 10, he’ll sign books at the Buckhead Barnes & Noble at 4:30 p.m.; at 7 p.m. May 17, he’ll be at Books-A-Million at Discover Mills in Gwinnett County. On June 8 he won’t be signing books, because he’ll be at Turner Field, where the Braves will retire his jersey, No. 29, before the night game.
Smoltz spoke with ArtsATL about “Starting and Closing.”
ArtsATL: You start out in the book writing why you didn’t want to write a book, then why you changed your mind. What was the writing like, in terms of collaboration with Don Yaeger? Was it difficult?
John Smoltz: It made me feel very vulnerable. There’s a lot of things I’ve learned from my experience that I’m willing to pass on. And if I can pass on any of my experiences through the book to anybody who might be entertaining some of the same issues, that would be awesome.
ArtsATL: Clearly your goal was not just to recount your career but to inspire people.
Smoltz: True. And to whatever ages that might be, whether it’s to a younger audience or a CEO or someone trying to reach a level in business and just achieving their dreams. That’s really what this book is about. It’s not about having a measure of talent and just being lucky and having the ability that God had given me. This is about failure and not being afraid to fail and going outside your comfort zone. Again, maybe it can help someone who reads this to have the motivation to press on and dig out of the hole, to achieve things they didn’t think were possible. That’s what my life was like.
ArtsATL: You write a lot about becoming a Christian and the role your faith plays in your life. Writing about baseball is so specific with so many physical details, but writing about faith is different. Was it hard to pin down or express that part of your life?
Smoltz: That can be a little tricky. Sometimes it’s easier to talk about something verbally than to put it down on paper. For me, this subject is going to be bantered about and certain people are going to have their opinions. Sometimes athletes can be like NASCAR — it depends on what’s on your hood, what you’re representing. I really try to approach it in a humble way. If asked, I am transparent. I just think the biggest thing in this area is it just became a part of who I was and where I was headed.
ArtsATL: You’re well known as a great golfer, and you write that your goal is to play in the PGA Champions Tour after you turn 50. How are you progressing toward that goal?
Smoltz: Not great. I just had my left shoulder operated on a few months ago, and I’m trying to get healthier. Once I get back into the swing of things, I’ll have an opportunity to see where that might take me. It’s really more a personal challenge than anything else.
ArtsATL: From what I hear, playing pro golf is more about mental toughness and focus than superior physical skills. Do your years in baseball translate mentally to the golf course, or are they different?
Smoltz: I think they’re similar, but I’ll never know until I get the opportunity. That’s what I talk about in the book. I learned through some of the greatest embarrassments and failures. Playing in that Nationwide Tournament taught me a lot. [In 2011, Smoltz played in a tournament that’s like the AAA minor league version of the PGA. He usually shoots in the low 70s, but he shot a horrendous 84-87 and didn’t make the cut.] I’ll be a better golfer for the rest of my life having been humiliated. I embraced it and moved forward. I know what I can do. I’m content with who I am and the fact that failure might be right at my fingertips.
ArtsATL: There was a rumor in 2010 that you might run for a congressional seat. Were you actually considering that?
Smoltz: That came out of nowhere. I thought it was a prank. I don’t know where it came from. I have no aspirations whatsoever.
ArtsATL: You devote a whole chapter to the Braves’ winning only one World Series in their 14 straight division titles, and dissecting what happened in detail. Was that painful to sort through and write, or do you have some emotional distance on it now?
Smoltz: It’s always painful when you feel like you could have done better. But the reality is it was an incredible accomplishment that today’s world shoots down as a failure to some degree — “what have you done for me lately?” I think it’s unfair. The fact that we should have done a lot more was painful.
ArtsATL: There’s a lot of talk about Atlanta sports fans and whether they support their teams. You don’t address that in the book. Is it a fair assessment that at some point in the Braves’ run the fans got a little complacent?
Smoltz: That’s a tough one to figure out. The reality of Atlanta fans is that most of them come from outside the city. People are from all over. You can’t explain why different cities go about their sports the way they do. Some historically are better than others. When it comes to the fans for me, personally, it’s been an incredible time for me to live there, it’s my home, everyone’s been great. Sure there’s times when you want to see the fans filling the stadium. But when they did, boy, they were loud.
ArtsATL: On June 8 the Braves will retire your jersey, No. 29, the ninth jersey the organization has retired. How emotional is that ceremony going to be for you? Can you keep from choking up?
Smoltz: That’s the million-dollar question. There’s been a lot of emotion in 21 years. There’s been a lot of joy and a lot of tough moments. There will be that flashing of your life before you. I never get caught up in the moment until the actual moment happens. I won’t have any notes. I’ll speak straight from my heart, I hope not to ramble, and I hope it will be well received.