The Book He Wanted to Write: A Review of John Smoltz's Starting and Closing

Starting and Closing chronicles John Smoltz's final season in a major league uniform, capping a legendary career that included fourteen years as part of one of the most dominant starting rotations in baseball, a Cy Young Award, and a World Series title—all while battling and overcoming "career-ending" injuries.

It’s hard to think of many Braves that could write a book that would be more hotly anticipated. Of that fabled trio of Braves pitchers from the historic playoff run, he remains the favorite of many. While many Braves fans believe that Greg Maddux is the greatest pitcher of his generation, we also know that he has to be shared with Cubs fans. As for Tom Glavine, he may have pitched his best years in an Atlanta Braves uniform, but when he left Atlanta, he wore the blue and orange of the hated New York Mets. John Smoltz didn’t just continue to wear a Tomahawk across his chest after the playoff run concluded, he seemed to thrive, remaining one of the best starting pitchers in the National League. During his career, Smoltz was well known for speaking his mind honestly. As we’ve learned during his announcing career, he is also a very funny man. A book by one of Atlanta’s best, funniest and most blunt players will be welcomed with open arms by the Braves faithful. That book, Starting and Closing: Perseverance, Faith and One More Year arrives May 8 from William Morrow Press.

Before I had even read the first word, I knew that this book was not going to be what I anticipated. Looking through the section of pictures that are always placed in the middle of these sports biographies, his emphasis became clear. The pictures start with the obligatory shots of the Smoltz family and of him as a youngster, including numerous pictures of him as young player. There are pictures of Smoltzy as a minor leaguer and as a baby Brave, including a photo from his first All-Star team in 1989. Then, there are pictures of him as a Red Sox and as a Cardinal in the last season of his career. There are no pictures of Smoltz with the 1995 World Series trophy. There are no pictures of him with his Cy Young award. There isn’t a single picture that was taken during the Braves run of fourteen straight division titles. The closest is a picture of him with the Roberto Clemente award he received after the 2005 season.

Smoltz himself makes clear near the beginning of the book that this isn’t your typical sport star autobiography. He did not, in fact, have any desire to write a book for the longest time. It was only after he felt a calling that the book was written. If it isn’t a typical sports autobiography, then what is it? Well, it’s a motivational book and it is a religious book and with few exceptions, baseball is used as a vehicle to express his thoughts on success and faith.

The book is structured around the last of John Smoltz’s “one more years”. When he made the decision the have surgery on his shoulder during the 2008 season, he had every intention of coming back and pitching for the Braves in 2009. That season did not work out as he had planned, of course. His shoulder surgery and his 2009 season with the Red Sox and the Cardinals serve as the book’s framework. He uses this period to relate back to stories of his life and of his career.

“… this is not your typical autobiography.” -John Smoltz, p. 22

The word he uses in his subtitle is “perseverance” and it is not used lightly by Smoltz. As a young man from a musical family, he was considered something of a prodigy on the accordion. At seven, he made the decision that he was going to be a major league baseball player. Sure, many of us had the same dream at that age, but it was clear from a young age that he had the will and the talent to make it happen. No matter the obstacle thrown in his way, he overcame it. When he was traded to the Braves from his childhood favorite Detroit Tigers, he focused on the improvements in facilities and coaching. When the Braves trainer described the strange flexibility in his shoulder joint that caused him to occasionally dislocate his shoulder while pitching, he found a personal trainer to improve his strength training to toughen the joint. When he struggled through the first half of the 1991 season, he set aside his pride and agreed to see a sports psychologist. WIth each and every surgery, he threw himself into his rehab like a man possessed. When he couldn’t make heads or tails of his life, he turned to his faith.

“Faith” is the other word in the subtitle and one wonders if this book won’t wind up on the religious shelves in some bookstores. There all allusions to his faith throughout the book, but it is in chapter nine that John Smoltz basically gives his testimony. Baseball fans are as diverse as any other group of Americans and I would expect there will be many who embrace this part of the book, those that reject it, and others that simply don’t care. Do not, however, mistake it for a footnote in his story. It was in the 1995 off-season that Smoltz had his religious awakening and he does not believe that his career year of 1996 was an accident of timing. In his discussions of religion, Smoltz focuses on what it has brought him and only rarely comes off preachy.

As for baseball, the book skips around his Braves career without reliving his Braves career. There’s very little about game seven of the 1991 World Series, widely considered one of the greatest games in one of the greatest World Series. He doesn’t recount his feelings of the moment when Sid Bream slid across home plate in game seven of the 1992 NLCS. There’s no story about the Braves finally winning the Series in 1995. He does devote chapter sixteen to the question of why the Braves only captured a single World Championship. He’s considerably proud of the fourteen straight division championships, but the single ring clearly gnaws at him. That isn’t surprising with a competitor like Smoltz.

He also spends a large portion of the book discussing his transition to closing and then back to starting. This story comes alive off the page more than in any other portion of the book. He tells of how he had to beg to be given the chance to go to the bullpen, and then beg to leave it. He talks about basically having to relearn how to prepare to pitch. He lays out his routine in detail. It is in the negotiations around this period where Smoltz comes the closest to being controversial in the book. It is clear that his relationship with John Schuerholz is complicated. He respects the legendary Braves executive but his feelings for him are not warm in the slightest.

As for his future Hall of Fame Braves teammates, I don’t think Smoltz feels comfortable telling their story. The names Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine come up more in golf stories than in baseball ones. (The golf stories are another highlight of the book, including several laugh out loud pranks pulled on the course.) If you expected Smoltz to address his criticism of Chipper Jones from the 2007 season, you’d be wrong. In fact, the name Chipper Jones only comes up once in the book. This is a book about John Smoltz, not his teammates.

The largest baseball portion of the book deals with his struggles with the Red Sox in 2009 and his solid work for the Cardinals later in the year. He addresses the issues of his struggles head on and offers reasons for the struggle, but does not use those reasons as excuses. Being released clearly stung him, but he feels his period with the Cardinals vindicates his return in 2009. For John Smoltz, it was about one more year, and getting to pitch those few innings in the 2009 post-season made the rehab and the struggle worth it.

Is this the book Braves fans wanted? Well, that’s up to each fan to decide on their own. There is little doubt that John Smoltz has written the exact book that he intended to write. He has done it well. You will come away from this book with a strong idea of just who John Smoltz is and why he was so successful throughout his career. His story is one of patience and perseverance all of which was enabled through his faith. He also makes clear what we all know, that he was one hell of a baseball player. I think we as Braves fans all feel fortunate that little seven year old John Smoltz decided he wanted to put down the accordion and play baseball.

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