Sunday Stories: Major League Memoirs #4 – “Starting and Closing” by John Smoltz with Don Yaeger

11 10 2015

I read a book about Pedro Martinez, around the time of his induction, and last month I finished a book about another one of this year’s Hall of Fame inductees.  Interestingly enough, both Pedro and John Smoltz can be found regularly on the TV for those of us who watch the MLB postseason (and if you’re reading this blog, I’m assuming that’s you).

Smoltz book cover

Title/Author/Publisher: “Starting and Closing: Perseverance, Faith, and One More Year” by John Smoltz with Don Yaeger (William Morrow, 2012, 304 pages)

Description:  Unlike Pedro’s book, which was a classic beginnings-to-today autobiography, Smoltz focused more on the least covered aspect of his career, the only year he didn’t pitch with the Atlanta Braves.  After going from starting to closing and back, Smoltz is forced to end his 2008 season with major shoulder surgery.  As a 41 year-old with a lot of miles on his arm, the Braves were unwilling to bet on him.  He covers the road back in 2009, which went from rehabbing with the Red Sox, then getting cut after poor results.  But he caught on with St. Louis and ended his career on a fairly positive note with one last postseason appearance.

Despite what Smoltz claims a few times in the book, it is still an autobiography.  He uses the final season as the main construct of the book.  But he does cover his entire career from early to end in the process.  Early in the book he covers how he got interested in baseball as a youngster, then moves to why he decided at the last-minute to forego college and sign with the Tigers.  And of course there are plenty of stories about his days with the Braves, from game 7 of the 1991 World Series, their lone title in 1995 and his days golfing with the pitching staff.  He does always bring it back to how his approach and outlook helped him get through the difficulty of 2009.

My review:  The way it’s reviewed and advertised, I got the impression that Smoltz was intending this to be a self-help book.  That made me a little wary bit before starting it.  It has some elements like that, but it does cover his whole career while partially pulling back the curtain – but not fully.  The book intertwines his career with his struggles to come back in his final season.  In 2009, Smoltz came back from shoulder surgery and the Braves were ready to move on – so he signed with Boston and, after the Red Sox released him, with St. Louis.  Since that’s the premise, the book doesn’t spend as much time on some of the bigger moments of his career.  I would have liked to hear a bit more on his perspective in the 1991 World Series Game 7 or the 1995 or 1996 series.  The discussion is there – but not in a ton of detail

There are a bunch of interesting anecdotes, and Smoltz covers stories from off the field as much as anything else.  I liked this.  He described one of his first seasons with the Braves, when Ted Simmons told him that he needed to find a hobby outside of baseball.  For Smoltz, it was golf.  When he went to a new city, he had a little black book – of the best golf courses and who to call to get out.  There are quite a few stories of he, Maddux, Glavine and a few other pitchers while out on the course.  He’s since become a scratch golfer who has played in a few professional tournaments with some results left to be desired.  He hopes to make the senior tour, and given his track record of success, I wouldn’t bet against him.

Smoltz golf

Other Notable nuggets:  This book has quite a few, including the golf stories I mentioned.

  • In his early years, his family wanted to be an accordion player.  I had heard this, but didn’t appreciate how serious his family was until I read the book.  As a 7-year old, he “decided” he was going to be a baseball player – and unlike me, he made good on that claim.
  • He covered the supposed “incident” where a local reporter wrote a story that he had tried to iron his shirt while it was still on.  Smoltz refuted it – he got burned by hot water from an iron (which is a big difference), and described how the writer just listened to some locker room banter and basically did some irresponsible reporting.
  • He almost went to Michigan State to pitch and play basketball for Judd Heathcote.  But after a successful run for Team USA in the junior Olympics, his hometown Tigers drafted him and he signed about a week before he was scheduled to head to East Lansing.
  • Throughout the book, there are signs of how competent the Atlanta organization had become.  Initially depressed after his hometown Tigers traded him, Smoltz realized in his first season with the Braves minor leagues how much better the pitching instruction was.  So there was a reason they had that 15 year run of dominance.
  • Closing was his idea as a way to get back to the team after Tommy John surgery.  He didn’t expect it to last past that season, much less for 3+ years.  But it’s the closing that probably put him over the top as a first ballot Hall of Famer.
  • In his first ever round of golf, Smoltz notched a birdie on his 5th hole.  The guy’s a natural.  He’s never shot over 100 in his life, and rarely ever over 90.

There isn’t really a baseball card connection with this book.  I’m thinking of getting a set together for each book I’ve read – and for this one I’d probably go with his 2010 Upper Deck Season Biography because it covers his start with the Cardinals.  It goes with the theme of the book.

2010 UD Season Biography John Smoltz