As a broadcaster for Fox Sports, Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz has heard every new idea involving sabermetrics and analytics that has inundated the game.
But Smoltz told coaches at the annual Texas High School Baseball Coaches Association Convention that their knowledge and insight will always be valuable.
“Never forget to use your eyes and trust your gut,” Smoltz said. “You have knowledge, passion and wisdom. Even in an age of analytics, your eyes are valuable.”
As the featured speaker at Friday night’s THSBCA banquet at the Waco Convention Center, Smoltz said several coaches from his childhood throughout his brilliant major league career taught and inspired him.
While he believes there’s a place for analytics, he said it was impossible to the replace the interaction with coaches he trusted. One reason he spent 20 of his 21 major league seasons with the Atlanta Braves was to play under manager Bobby Cox.
The Braves won 14 division championships, five National League pennants and the 1995 World Series under Cox. He always defended his players as he set a major league record by getting ejected from 158 games.
“He was one of the greatest coaches in history,” Smoltz said. “He gave us confidence at times when we didn’t have it. He made us men. I asked him once why he took all the bullets for us. He said he has to as our leader. I turned down a lot of money to keep playing for him.”
Smoltz enjoyed one of the most unique careers of any pitcher in major league history, becoming the first ever to record more than 200 wins and 150 saves in his career.
But despite all his success, he said he learned some of his biggest lessons from his failures. As a 15-year-old playing in a national tournament in Johnstown, Pa., he said he gave up four two-run homers.
When he returned to his hometown in Lansing, Mich., Smoltz told his dad that he needed to get a lot better to become the pitcher he wanted.
“Nothing I’ve experienced in baseball compared to that,” Smoltz said. “But failure was a motivator for me. That was the greatest learning tool I had.”
Both Smoltz’s mother and father were accordion players, and he began learning how to play the instrument when he was 4. But when he turned 7, he advised his parents that he was going to become a major league baseball player.
Smoltz spent many days in his youth throwing a rubber ball into a strike zone against his house, and often simulated his favorite Detroit Tigers pitchers. He often imagined himself in Game 7 of the World Series.
“Just to keep things real, I went 99-1 instead of 100-0,” Smoltz said.
Smoltz’s dreams came true when the Tigers selected him in the 22nd round of the 1985 draft, but two years later he was traded to the Atlanta Braves’ organization.
“I thought I was going to the worst team in the history of baseball, but it turned out to be my greatest opportunity,” Smoltz said.
Smoltz became part of one of the greatest pitching staffs in major league history as he joined Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine.
“I had the two greatest pitchers to my left and right,” Smoltz said. “I never dreamed that we’d play together for 10 years.”
All those imaginary Game 7’s became reality in 1991 when he pitched against Minnesota’s Jack Morris in the final game of the World Series. Smoltz pitched superbly as he allowed six hits and no runs in 7 1/3 innings, but Morris was even better as he scattered seven hits in 10 innings as the Twins won the World Series with a 1-0 decision.
Finishing 24-8 in 1996, Smoltz was at the peak of his career as he won the National League Cy Young Award. But he underwent Tommy John surgery in 2000 and was ineffective as a starter the following year.
Cox moved him to the bullpen and he set a National League record with 55 saves and finished third in the 2002 Cy Young Award voting.
One thing he remembers most was that the Braves wanted him to come up with an introductory song to blast over the speakers as he trotted to the mound.
“I played the accordion when I was 4, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t want me to play Lawrence Welk,” Smoltz said. “So one day, I went out there and they played ‘Dancing Queen.’ I liked ABBA but ‘Dancing Queen’ wasn’t very manly. That’s when I came up with ‘Thunderstruck’ (by AC/DC).”
While Smoltz accomplished a lot of great things on the field, he said his most treasured honor was winning the Roberto Clemente Award for sportsmanship, teamwork and community involvement.
“I never thought about making the Hall of Fame,” Smoltz said. “But the Roberto Clemente Award means the most to me.”