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One and Done

In an excerpt from his new book, "Starting and Closing," Braves legend John Smoltz reflects on the team's heartbreaking postseason record

By any measure, John Smoltz’s twenty-two-year professional career was remarkable. A Cy Young winner and eight-time All-Star, Smoltz is the most recent pitcher to join the 3,000 strikeout club and the only one ever to top both 200 wins and 150 saves. Yet on his way into the record books (and likely the Hall of Fame), his career nearly ended more than once.

After Tommy John surgery in 2000, Smoltz persuaded a skeptical Bobby Cox to send him to the minors for rehab as a reliever. He came back to Atlanta and spent four years as a closer, only to make an even more improbable return to the starting rotation. When his beloved Braves finally let him go in 2009, he had a short, disappointing run with the Boston Red Sox. Coming back to Atlanta that August, he writes, felt like “being sent home in a coffin with a toe tag.” Still, before the month was out, he would take the mound again, for the St. Louis Cardinals—throwing a debut five shutout innings against the Padres and pitching in the Cards’ postseason.

Smoltz shares these lessons of perseverance in his first book, "Starting and Closing." Not a complete autobiography, the book traces his career and touches on his childhood through the lens of his erratic final season, 2009. By his own admission, if the book had been about his ego, Smoltz would’ve chosen 1996—the year he went 24–8 and pitched in the World Series. Smoltz might be pitching still if Turner Broadcasting hadn’t tapped him to join its broadcast team in 2010.

Today Smoltz works with many nonprofits, including King’s Ridge Christian School, an Alpharetta college preparatory school that Smoltz helped found in 2001. A scratch golfer, he’s rumored to be mulling the Champions Tour when he turns fifty in 2017.

In this excerpt, Smoltz explains what it was like to face so much anguish in the postseason.Betsy Riley

An excerpt from "Starting and Closing: Perseverance, Faith, and One More Year" by John Smoltz with Don Yaeger

When you Google “World Series champions” between 1991 and 1999, the name “Atlanta Braves” appears only once, listed as the 1995 champion. There’s no little asterisk next to our name reminding people, “Hey, the Braves went to the Fall Classic five times during that time span.” There is no small print at the bottom that explains, “Atlanta duked it out to the bitter end in some epic games that could have gone either way.” When it comes to the record books, you’re either a winner or you’re not. And the record books will tell you, we were losers more often than not. What they won’t tell you is why.

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It’s something I’m asked about a lot, honestly, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bother me sometimes. When you play baseball professionally, dedicate your life to it, and come insanely close to achieving your ultimate goal so many times only to watch the Commissioner’s Trophy be handed to another team, it hurts. It sticks with you. It becomes more than just a game.

I lived and breathed our entire run of fourteen consecutive division titles, and I still can’t quite understand it, to be honest. I still look back on all those years in the playoffs and wonder. I mean, it is almost nonsensical how we didn’t win a whole handful of rings. Whether you’re a Braves fan or not, you can’t deny the odds; we should have won more than one championship, no doubt about it. But last time I checked, baseball couldn’t care less about random odds, or who is supposed to win or lose on paper.

It’s hard to describe in a few broad generalizations what happened and why we only managed to win it all once, because, like I said, it’s really hard to generalize fourteen years of baseball. The truth is, there isn’t one reason. There might be one reason for each year, but there’s not one reason for all fourteen. All I am offering here are a few opinions that might help make sense of something that is, generally speaking, hard to understand.

And honestly, while I may have strung together a few nuggets of wisdom here, at the end of the day, I’m also almost convinced that there may be no better or more complete answer than this: Baseball is a beautiful game, but it can also be brutally heartbreaking sometimes.

With those thoughts in mind, I offer you four observations about the futility that overtook us during our streak:

1. It’s not Bobby Cox’s fault. Bobby Cox has taken more bullets about this than almost anyone else, and it’s high time that credit is given where credit is due. If you aren’t a die-hard Braves fan, you might not realize how influential Bobby was in building the team that would start our historic run. He was actually the Braves’ general manager from 1985 to 1990, back when the only thing the Braves were competing for every year was the basement of the National League West. Bobby was the man responsible for righting our ship and turning things around. He made big, sweeping changes: revamping Atlanta’s minor league system; stocking a stable of young arms, including myself, Tom Glavine, and Steve Avery; and acquiring or drafting young talent, including David Justice and some guy named Chipper Jones. Bobby Cox had put together a talented young team, but it would take a few years to translate this into tangible wins on the field.

When June 1990 rolled around, Bobby moved to the dugout to serve as our manager and general manager until October, when John Schuerholz was brought in to be the new GM. It was the very next year, 1991, that our team notoriously went from worst to first and took the World Series into the tenth inning of Game Seven, before eventually losing 1–0 to the Twins in what is widely regarded as one of the best Series of all time. Bobby had helped build the nucleus of that team.

While Bobby helped lay the framework for our run, he also deserves a ton of recognition for sustaining our run. You don’t win any division for fourteen years straight without finding ways to win games that you have no business winning, statistically speaking.

You can always second-guess a manager’s moves: “Why pull the starter now? Hit and run here . . . are you kidding me?” Believe me, every player plays manager in his mind sometimes and you wonder what the real manager is up to. It’s easy to do. But trust me: Bobby’s moves were always calculated, made with the intention of preserving a lead, preserving his athletes, or generating some offense when the run-support well had run dry. He knew things the rest of us didn’t know, saw things even the best in the game didn’t see. This is what good managers do—they know the odds, they know the percentages, and they are always looking for opportunities to exploit another team’s weakness and put their own players in position to crack open games. And Bobby did that better than anybody, if you ask me.

2. Superior pitching wins baseball games, but power pitching is a bonus in the postseason. During our historic run, we enjoyed the best rotation in all of baseball, maybe even the all-time best. When you face a 162-game schedule with Greg Maddux, Tommy Glavine, myself, and Steve Avery on the mound, there’s no denying that you are going to have a better chance to win more games than any other team. The best rotation can get you to the postseason, as we proved year after year, but things change when you get to the postseason.

Playoff baseball is so different from the regular season. Everything becomes condensed and magnified at the same time. In a postseason game, every hit and every pitch matters. In playoff baseball, a man on first is a rally and the crowd knows it. Everyone is dialed in, on task, and sharp, and there are no free rides. Pitchers don’t throw away pitches and hitters don’t give away at-bats. This laserlike focus is only heightened by the fact that you never know when a moment might win or lose a game. When it comes to elimination games, there literally is no tomorrow.

What all this boils down to is that everybody makes adjustments to their strategies to survive and increase their odds of winning. Good hitters know that if they are facing finesse pitchers like Tom Glavine or Greg Maddux, a higher-percentage strategy is to take away part of the plate and settle for making contact. To put it simply, the more contact generated, the more chances a team has to be successful in the shorter format of the postseason. I, personally, am convinced that it’s harder to be successful with a staff full of finesse pitchers in the postseason because you have to be that much more perfect. I’m convinced that if you live on contact and throwing strikes out of the zone, you don’t always reap the benefit of it in the playoffs.

Hitters facing finesse pitchers during the regular season are much more likely to try to do more with the ball, like pull it down the line. This is precisely how Maddux and Glavine made their living; during the regular season, they won this battle more times than not.

Now, theories are nice and all, but the other thing I know is that when Tommy and Greg were on the top of their game, it didn’t matter what approach the hitters took; the pitchers were going to win.

It’s a different story for a power, or fastball, pitcher like me. The postseason gave me the opportunity to use other gears that would make it tougher on hitters. These extra gears allowed me to increase the velocity of my pitches and the sharpness of my breaking balls.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Why wasn’t I doing this over the course of the thirty-five-odd starts I would get in the regular season? The short answer is that there’s no way to do it. There’s no way to sustain this type of effort. This is reserved for the games that look like they could be your last.

I think that in theory, the fastball pitcher has a better chance to be successful in the postseason because he can be aggressive and challenge hitters and feed off the intensity of the postseason. It doesn’t do much good for finesse pitchers to try to feed off the intensity, because they aren’t going to benefit from throwing the ball harder; their finesse pitches and their command are their weapons.

Now, I used to think the more power pitching you had, the better chance you had to be successful, but that has obviously been disproved on more than a couple occasions. But with that said, in theory, I still believe it’s a great formula to have that go-to power guy, that guy who can strike out ten or eleven guys in a game when you need it, because it could lead to more wins when they count the most.

3. Starting pitching is great, but timely hitting can be better. Strong starting pitching often delivers you to the postseason, but in the playoffs you are all but destined to go up against other great starting pitching. I think our run all but proves that a lack of timely hitting can hurt you way more than a starter who can’t get you safely into the sixth inning.

The one thing I think you can say about our World Series appearances is that rarely did we get outpitched. Now, that may seem a little nonsensical because we lost way more times than we won, but the fact is, when you talk about getting outpitched, you have to look at the number of games that were decided by one run. We went to the World Series five times: 1991, 1992, 1995, 1996, and 1999. Over those five Series we played a total of twenty-nine games. More than half of those games—seventeen to be exact—were decided by one run, and we lost twelve of those. That means we lost roughly 70 percent of the time in extremely close games that could have gone either way. The year we won, 1995, was the lone year when we won more close games than we lost.

Our pitching kept us in games, but it clearly wasn’t always enough to deliver championships. What we really lacked almost across the board was some timely hitting. The fact is, when you lose World Series games by one run, you fall victim to that clutch hit, that one play coming in and costing you a game, and eventually the whole Series.

As starting pitching goes, so goes your organization, but to win it all you’ve got to have a combination of a team that’s hot and is capable of timely hitting. There were years when we just didn’t get that timely hitting, in 1991 and 1992 especially, and one year that we did, in 1995.

I’m telling you, sometimes all you need is that one run.

4. Sometimes fate just kicks your butt. I’m going to warn you in advance that I realize what follows is subjective. Surely there’s a more scientific way to explain our shortcomings, but I’m a simple man: I’ll leave the equations and acronyms to those with a proclivity for math and for the use of calculators. What I do know is that a few things about baseball can’t be explained Moneyball-style. You can’t define momentum any more than you can predict impetus. Things happen—things that don’t get recorded in the record books or official box scores—that can tip a game one way or the other. Call it a curse, call it fate, call it bad karma; it just seemed like more often than not, we were on the losing end of all of it, with the glaring exception, of course, being 1995. There are many, many examples that I can point to, but for the sake of brevity, I’m going to limit myself only to the 1996 World Series.

Now remember, it’s 1996, not 2006. The Yankees have really done nothing for years; the last time they were in the Series was in 1981 when they lost to the L.A. Dodgers. Meanwhile, we came into the World Series in 1996 not only as the defending champions, after beating the Indians the previous year, but we had also been to the Series in ’91 and ’92. If anybody looked like the Team of the Nineties at this point, it was us.

That year we had swept the wild-card Dodgers in the National League Division Series, but then somehow found ourselves down three games to one in the NL Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. We proved to be down but not out, roaring back to win three games in a row in dramatic fashion and earn another trip to the World Series. We were returning to the Fall Classic for the second year in a row and we had momentum. We came in heavily favored to win another championship.

The Series opened in New York on Sunday, October 20, after the original opener was scratched due to rain. The delayed start did little to extinguish our bats, and two short days later the record stood at 2–0. We had manhandled the Yankees—in Yankee Stadium, no less—blowing them out and winning both games with a collective score of 16–1. We were headed back to Atlanta with what appeared to be an insurmountable lead.

But this is where things started to get a little screwy. We certainly had a nice lead, but everyone knows you never walk around like you’ve already won the thing. Well, someone should have told that to our local paper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which ran an article that basically claimed, “The Series is over, why even play the games?” Seriously. I still remember picking up the paper and just groaning. It was such a bad omen. I couldn’t believe they would run something like that. What were they thinking? Now, I’m not saying the AJC is entirely to blame for our downfall, but I certainly am pointing out that their fate-tempting article seemed to be the first omen that the tables were about to turn.

After the article, it seemed like we were fighting everything imaginable. The rest of the Series was one big train wreck for us. If it could go the Yankees’ way, it did. We couldn’t catch a break, let alone a foul ball, to save our lives. Here is a short—and incomplete—list of “random” occurrences that conspired against us in the next five days:

Accidental umpire interference: Through five innings of Game Four, we’re up 6–0. In the sixth, right field umpire Tim Welke inexplicably impedes right fielder Jermaine Dye as he charges in to snatch what appears to be an otherwise routine foul ball popped up beyond the first base line. The ball hits the deck. The batter, a certain Derek Jeter, gets a second chance at the plate and singles, touching off a three-run Yankee rally. The score after the sixth: Braves 6, Yankees 3.

Some guy named Leyritz: Later in the eighth, Rafael Belliard muffs what appears to be a routine double-play ball, only managing to get the runner out at second. With one out and two on, the stage is set for a rally, but the next batter due up, Jim Leyritz, a defensive sub brought in for Yankee catcher Joe Girardi in the sixth, doesn’t seem to be a likely hero. Leyritz improbably delivers with a three-run home run, tying the game at 6–6 and bringing the Yankees back to life in the game and in the Series. It was later reported that Leyritz, not expecting to play, had spent most of the game in the Yankee weight room.

No earned runs allowed, we still lose: Game Five. I pitch eight innings, strike out ten, throw 135 pitches, allow one unearned run, and still get the loss. The Yankees score their one and only run in the fourth, assisted by an error by center fielder Marquis Grissom. What should have been out number one results in Charlie Hayes on second, in scoring position. Two batters later, he scores. It was another error that would lead to yet another Yankee win.

Win one for Frank Torre: In between Games Five and Six, Frank Torre, big brother of Yankees manager Joe Torre, suddenly undergoes successful heart-transplant surgery, after waiting three months for a donor. He recovers enough to be able to watch Game Six from his hospital bed. The Yankees, obviously supportive of their manager and his family, are supplied with yet another reason to play hard.

On October 21, we appeared to be on a collision course with destiny in the form of repeat titles. Five days later, we had somehow lost the World Series and destiny belonged to the Yankees. Their incredible win was our incredible loss. Not only did we lose another championship, we lost the foundation of the team that had gotten us to the World Series four out of the last six years. If we had won, would our general manager have gone in another direction and been able to keep the likes of David Justice, Marquis Grissom, Terry Pendleton, Jermaine Dye, and Steve Avery? That’s the kind of thing we’ll never know. What we do know is what did happen. The Yankees went on to dominate, even today. Meanwhile, the Braves are still chasing their first winning World Series game since 1996.

Maybe to some people it sounds like we Atlanta Braves fans are crying in our spilled milk, but the fact is we were so close, it’s so hard to explain. It doesn’t make any sense, but the reality is a hit here, a pitch here, a run here, and I’m not writing a chapter about why there was only one ring. It’s like I said earlier: Baseball is a beautiful game, but it can also be brutally heartbreaking.

Copyright © 2012 by John Smoltz. To be published on May 8, 2012, by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers