John Smoltz: If you don’t dream it, you can’t achieve it

Published 11:48 am Friday, February 27, 2015

By Brian Pitts

Davie Enterprise Record

Not only was John Smoltz a big-time pitcher who will be inducted in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame on July 26, he’s a master storyteller.

The always affable, talkative Smoltz was the special guest at the 2015 Wake Forest Baseball First Pitch Dinner on Feb. 12 in the Snead Room at Bridger Field House in Winston-Salem.

Smoltz, 47, took the podium and gave a 30-minute speech about his life. Then he did a question-and-answer session for another 20 minutes.

Smoltz spent 21 years in Major League Baseball, including 20 with the Atlanta Braves. He was an eight-time All-Star selection. He won the National League Cy Young Award in 1996 when he went 24-6. With 213 wins and 154 saves, he’s the only pitcher in history to compile 200 wins/150 saves. He’s the last of 16 pitchers to reach 3,000 strikeouts. He was tough in the clutch, going 15-4 in the postseason. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in January in his first year of eligibility.

On Feb. 11, Smoltz flew in from Atlanta as Wake Forest baseball coach Tom Walter picked him up at the airport. He spent time with the Wake team, passing on nuggets of wisdom.

The evening of Feb. 12 – in front of hundreds of folks, many from Davie County – was filled with stories and jokes and warmth and laughs. After a few other speakers finished, Smoltz stepped up to the podium. His memories and stories flowed for nearly an hour. Many times he was laugh-out-loud hysterical.

Here are excerpts from Smoltz’s speech.

“My mom and dad told me God is first, family is second, school is third and sports is fourth. Sometimes we reverse those orders or get them out of whack. But that was very strongly suggested and commanded of me when I was a youngster.

“Both my parents were accordion teachers. One thing you don’t know about my dad is he was almost a priest. Almost … the reason I’m here is the almost part. At the last minute, he didn’t quite feel like that was his calling, and I’m grateful for that.

“He played the accordion all his life. He was in a band, and that’s how my mom and dad met. At 4 years old, they put the accordion on me and I started playing the accordion. From 4 to 7, I played the accordion. That was the best thing they could do for me. Looking back, the brilliance was they didn’t teach me; they let somebody else teach me. That was brilliant because it could be a little difficult trying to teach your child that instrument. That instrument obviously isn’t as popular today. Neither are eight-track tapes of Polka that I had to listen to my whole life. Nonetheless, that was my upbringing – Lawrence Welk and watching my dad play.

“But for me at the age of 7, I just decided that was not for me. What the accordion did teach me, however, was incredible discipline and work ethic. You couldn’t miss any time. I had to go to the teacher and put in a lot of work and practice, and I competed in competitions throughout Chicago and who knows where else. I do have a couple trophies, so I had an opportunity to play it much like my family members and well-known uncles.

“But at 7, I knew exactly what I wanted to be in life. I told my parents in a car at a gas station. We argue on which car it was in, but nonetheless it was in a car at a gas station. I think it was a Pacer, which is embarrassing. Nonetheless I remember it was a car that was not the most hip car back then. I told my mom: ‘I know what I’m going to be.’ She said: ‘Great. What is it going to be?’ I said: ‘I’m going to be a Major League baseball player when I grow up.’ She didn’t bat an eye. She didn’t even look like it bothered her. That dream and that quest never left my body. My mom said: ‘That’s awesome. We want you to pursue your dream. We want you to be passionate about it, but we also think it would be great if you had a backup goal in case that doesn’t happen.’ At 7, I knew what that was, too. At least I thought I did. I thought it was relevant to tell her: ‘If I don’t make it as a Major League baseball player, I will be a gas-station attendant.’ She politely asked me to keep that under my hat. There’s nothing wrong with it. You’ve got to understand, that was back when you had full service – do the wipers, check the oil, everything. It was cool. That’s what I wanted to be.

“My dad swears he has some athleticism. I don’t see it and I really don’t know that he ever did. But I told them each and every year it’s OK if you decide to tell me that I’m adopted. They swear I am not. But they gave me every opportunity. If they didn’t know it, they went and sought it. My dad drove all these countless miles and hours to come watch me play baseball.

“What I did was I created my own stadium in the lawn in Lansing, Mich. We didn’t have a big house. My dad at that time owned a Sony retail shop. We were kind of the first ones to come out with Walkmans. That was pretty cool. My dad taught me so many things. Not only humility, but to not be afraid to fail and not to be afraid of who you are. So much so that he drove me to school in a red Maverick. It was embarrassing. And he never dropped me off a mile from school either. He always took me right up to the door. But he taught me to not be afraid of who you are. He was a salesman. He could sell anything. He loved life. He was a jokester. He’s probably why Dumb & Dumber is my favorite movie.

“So while I sit there in my own stadium in Lansing, Mich., the curb was 40 feet away from a brick wall and a screen door. It’s where I went every day. I put a taped strike zone on it and four boxes outside the strike zone to work on those areas with a rubber baseball. Every day when I wasn’t doing something with my friends, I went out there. I was on the mound. I was the broadcaster. I was the hero of the game. The stadium was always packed. And I was pitching Game 7 of the World Series every single day. And I threw in a loss. I went 99-1 just to keep it real. But that was my mindset. I would create these scenarios. If you don’t dream it, you’ll never achieve it. There was no other way other than to self-teach myself baseball because my parents couldn’t do it. They provided the opportunity to drive me to practice. I would watch a game and emulate that guy. I was a Tigers fan but I grew up watching everybody. I would play these games in my mind, and in my mind I believed when I get these opportunities someday to live this out, it’ll be just like I thought it was as a kid.

“I had this belief if you weren’t for me, you were against me. If you couldn’t help me make my dream, then get out of the way because I really stayed true to that quest. I was very gifted in football, basketball and baseball. I was on this quest to make it. If there was a hurdle in my way, I was going over it. And I was avoiding the pitfalls of somebody that thought differently or gave me statistics that said less than one percent of ballplayers make it to the big leagues.

“I’ve gotten three calls in my baseball career. The first two were just so-so. They weren’t the greatest of news. My first call was getting drafted in the 22nd round when I thought I was going to be first through fourth. Back then you just waited by the phone. You waited and you waited and somebody asked you, ‘Did they call?’ I said no. I finally got the call by the Detroit Tigers in the 22nd round. Now I knew without a doubt that wasn’t going to get me signed. I had signed early to go to Michigan State. I was going to play baseball and basketball. Then my summer of baseball was the most incredible summer you could have. I played in all the top tournaments, pitched in some incredible games and my stock kept rising. So ultimately that 22nd round – and the 574th pick – turned into a bonus pick for the Tigers. I signed on the last day of eligibility to sign. That means Monday morning was class at Michigan State and on Sunday night I signed with Detroit and my dream was starting to come to fruition.

“Then I go on this quest and then the second call comes. Now this was the most devastating call I could have received at this point in my career. It was when I was notified that I had been traded to the Atlanta Braves – the worst team in all of baseball. Here I am in my hometown. I had gone to the ‘84 World Series (and watched the Tigers win the Series). My grandfather worked on the ground crew for over 20 years. It was a dream-come-true shattered. But I didn’t realize it was an opportunity of a lifetime. It gave me the ability to pitch at a young age on a team that desperately needed pitching. So I made that long drive from Glens Falls, N.Y. to Richmond (Va., the then-home of the Braves’ Triple-A affiliate). I refocused my goals. I realized that my goal was still to make it to the big leagues, and all I had to do was get my act together and keep working hard. That obviously turned into an incredible opportunity.

“And recently came the third call and the hall of fame. Never did I dream that when I was on the mound in Lansing, Mi., on that curb in the street from 40 feet. Never did I dream that a hall-of-fame career could ever come from an accordion-playing 4-year-old that dreamt one day to stand on the mound and do his thing. But ultimately it has. The third call wraps up the career I had filled with ups and downs, filled with so many failures that I couldn’t even tell you. But without those failures I don’t think that greatness could have ever happened. Failure is a good thing if you let it be.

“Well, the magical year (in 1991) continues and I get a chance to pitch the ultimate game – Game 7 (of the World Series) against the hero I always listened to and watched – Jack Morris. I loved the moment. The bigger the game, the slower the game was for me, the more I felt relaxed. I would take a nap before the big game. I missed Ted Turner’s speech. I went out to warm up in this incredibly loud Minnesota dome. It was the loudest stadium I’ve ever been in in my life. You couldn’t hear a conversation back and forth. All the thoughts of what I had done so many times in my mind was playing out in a joyful way. I remember standing on the mound and (pitching coach) Leo (Mazzone) says: ‘You ready for this?’ I said: ‘Absolutely. I’ve already done this. You see that little 6-year-old girl getting ready to sing the National Anthem? If she can do that, I can do this.’ I remember never once feeling out of place in the greatest pressure game that you can have. Getting a chance to pitch that game proved a couple things to me: If you believe it, you can achieve it.

“The funniest story ever was when I was in Triple-A. I was a struggling young man, coming up at 5-11 from Double-A. I did not belong in Triple-A, but when they trade you for a major leaguer, you have to go up one level. The catcher was straight out of (the movie) Bull Durham. This is a career minor leaguer. I was struggling. I mean I forgot a runner was on first; he walked to second. It was one of those games I was out of my element. I can’t exactly tell you the story (the catcher) told me. He came out to the mound and told me a story and my eyes got big and I’m thinking: ‘What is he telling me this for?’ And then he said: ‘Relax, just throw the baseball.’ And trust me, after he told me the story – which I can’t tell, it’s not PG – I did quit thinking about baseball for a minute and it worked. It had zero to do with baseball. That was his point. He was like, ‘Relax kid.’

“Some statements to live by: Be passionate about the process and not consumed with the outcome. Go for it, but don’t lose the passion for your process. Because if you’re too consumed with the outcome, it’s not going to go the way you think it’s going to go. You’ll be connected to statistics, power, wealth, all those things. You give me a kid that’s passionate about something – hopefully in a good way – you’re going to turn out great.

“I preferred starting. Closing was an opportunity to help the team. I never thought I would be there for three years, and then it became an opportunity to stay on the team. They said: ‘John, we need your song.’ I said: ‘What do you mean you need my song?’ They said: ‘When you come out to the mound, we’ve got to play a song.’ I didn’t even know the words to one song. I said: ‘I don’t have a song. Do you have any Lawrence Welk? Look, play whatever you want. My job is to get three outs before they tie the game. I can’t even think of a song. That’s not who I am.’ So the season goes on. Coming out of the ‘pen, I wanted to create some kind fierce look that wasn’t me, but I wanted to keep it that way. This one given night, the doors open, I come running out and Dancing Queen is playing. I’ve got to cover my mouth. The on-deck guy is laughing. And I realized I need a song. So luckily I didn’t blow the save and they came apologizing after the game. They said: ‘We’re so sorry. We hit the wrong button. We didn’t know you were coming.’ I said: ‘Whatever. I’m getting a song. Nothing against Aba, it’s just not one of the most motivating songs when you come in the game. I put the veteran bullpen in charge. I said: ‘Guys, don’t embarrass my dad. You know what he does for a living. He plays the accordion. Come up with something.’ The next day, they said you’re not going to believe what is going to be playing on the speakers when you come out. The door opens and the place goes crazy. Thunderstruck by AC/DC is playing. Thunder and lightning are on the scoreboard and it’s pandemonium. The place went crazy. That’s the evolution of Thunderstruck. I decided to play the theme song to Star Wars before I got to the infield, and then they played Thunderstruck. So I got carried away with the whole notion that I needed a song. Every time I would come into the game, Greg Maddux would run in the clubhouse and turn every TV as loud as he could. He knew it made our traveling secretary a little mad and he loved doing that, too.

“It was the ride of my life. I had a lot of help along the way. I don’t have enough time to thank all those people. Hopefully I can do that privately before my speech on July 26 because they only give you 10 minutes. After hearing me tonight, you can understand how hard that’s going to be. When I show up, I’m all in, I give everything I have. I don’t go through the motions.”