When Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame this summer in Cooperstown, New York, he only had 12 minutes to express a lifetime of appreciation. So the pitcher’s agent Lonnie Cooper threw Smoltz a private party held this summer at the marketing and branding firm’s CSE’s Atlanta headquarters for close family and friends. I was honored to be on the guest list. The evening was personal, insightful, reflective and frequently very funny.
“If you put a challenge in front of John Smoltz, he’s gonna try it,” explained former Braves teammate, golfing buddy and fellow hall of famer Tom Glavine. “That’s what made John special as a baseball player. What he accomplished was very rare. He had the ability to go from being a starting pitcher and being one of the best to then becoming a relief pitcher and a closer and being one of the best in the game at that. It’s not easy to do. Those two roles are so different and as he’ll tell you, you go out there as a starter and you can have the luxury of an occasional bad inning. But if you have a bad inning as a closer, it’s over. You team loses. The mentality is completely different. But John did it and he did it as well as anyone ever has in this game. That’s what makes him a hall of famer. There was never a doubt in my mind that he was going to be a hall of famer. I’m so thrilled he got that call. What’s cool for me is that we’re forever intertwined as the three of us, John, me and Greg Maddux, in the history of this city, There aren’t many conversations that go on where we’re not all mentioned together. I’m so proud and so honored that the three of us are also now going to be in Cooperstown immortalized in the game of baseball together.”
When lifelong Braves fan and comic Jeff Foxworthy moved back to Atlanta in 1997, he ended up becoming neighbors with Smoltz. Their children attended the same elementary school. They become video game playing pals. “The hall of fame is such a weird thing,” Foxworthy conceded. “When you’re growing up, this doesn’t happen to people that you know. This happens to somebody else. And so, John, to watch you play through your career, has been an honor. I always loved it when you had the ball because I knew that you were going to give it everything that he had. On some nights, that wasn’t a lot! I remember one playoff game, I think you had duct tape and a bungee cord out there with you. But John always gave you everything he had.”
Alas, Foxworthy does not share Smoltz, Glavine and Maddux’s competitive spirit on the golf course. “John is always wanting me to go play golf with him,” Foxworthy explained.” I’m terrible at golf. He’s out there playing with Tom, Greg and Tiger Woods. Finally, he talks me into it and we go out to The Golf Club of Georgia. The first hole is a par five and I hit my ball and it goes about 200 yards. I did OK. Usually, when I play golf, you have to check me for ticks afterward. But I can see my ball. I’m happy. Smoltz steps up and hits his ball 340 yards. We’re walking to the golf cart and John tells me, ‘Hey, did you hear they’re building a new mall out here?’ I said, ‘No, where in the world would they put a mall out here?’ He said, ‘Somewhere between your ball and my ball.’ That may have been the best joke you ever told!”
The two friends also share a deeper connection. “I’ve been in small group bible study with this guy for almost 20 years,” Foxworthy shared. “This isn’t a guy who just talks about his faith, he lives his faith. I remember when you told me, ‘I’m going to build [Kings Ridge Christian School] and I thought, ‘You’re out of your mind.’ But like Tom says, you put a challenge in front of John and he gets the job done. He literally pulled his hair out trying to get that school built. You’re so deserving of this. John is not just a hall of fame player, he’s a hall of fame human being.”
Finally, Braves pitcher No. 29 himself took to the podium to thank his friends, his family, the Braves chaplains present and Braves physician Dr. Joe Chandler. “I was supposed to be an accordion player,” Smoltz told the crowd. “That’s what I played from age four to age seven. But for whatever reason, at age seven, my parents let me play baseball. They let me pursue my passion.”
Back in Lansing, Michigan, the pitcher’s father taught him the importance of staying true to yourself. “My dad used to take me to school in his car,” Smoltz recalled. “He was a salesman. He drove a red Maverick dressed up as an adding machine. There was foil on the roof and numbers on the hood. He would never let me out a mile away, either. He always took me right to the door, with his car outfitted to sell his Ricoh Dictating Office Equipment. My dad was a salesman and he loved it. He taught me to never be afraid of who you are. I was never afraid to be a nerd.”
While he doesn’t miss the surgeries and the endless road trips away from his family, Smoltz said he missed one aspect of playing baseball. “I’ve always loved being around people and pushing each other to our limits,” he explained. “That’s what I miss most about not being in the uniform. You push each other and you pull for each other. It’s 25 different personalities, all working together. We had a blast together. The opportunity to play in this city for the Braves for 20 years was an honor and a privilege. Every time I buttoned up that jersey, I did my best to honor the team. Lonny and your crew, I’ll never forget this day. Thank you. This is unbelievable. Getting an opportunity to share this with my friends is something I’ll always remember.”
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.