ATLANTA -- The reporters who cluster around John Smoltz's locker
following a game ask whether he'll break the National League record for
saves (53) or the Major League mark (57). Smoltz is close -- as of Sept. 15
he had retired the last opposing batter in a close contest 51 times. But
what he really likes talking about is saving kids -- and the faith that
impels Smoltz in his school-creating work has also made him a better
Smoltz is serious enough to talk about Christian education for
close to an hour while some of his teammates are playing cards and tossing
towels into laundry bins, but intellectually playful enough to discuss
"How's this for an icebreaker question?" he asked. "How many
days in a row have you been happy?" Smoltz has been happy recently, and not
only because he is pitching well. His happiest day last year, he said, did
not come when he recovered from arm surgery and became the Braves' closer,
but "when I walked in and saw our school opening. I almost broke down ...
through Christ, we had overcome so much."
"Our school" is King's Ridge Christian School, which recently
began its second year in Atlanta's northern suburbs largely because of
Smoltz, according to headmaster Barbara Adler. "John was the inspiration,
the catalyst," she said. "He said, 'We're going to start it, we can do it,
we're going to do it.'" Unable to pitch in 2000 and during most of the 2001
season, Smoltz -- 35 years old and the father of four children between the
ages of 2 and 10 -- poured himself into the project. "Building a school
takes an incredible amount of time," he said. "In one sense, I'd rather have
another surgery on my arm than go through all this again."
Hiring teachers, developing curriculum, enrolling students --
300 this year -- and finding a place to meet ... all very hard but "very
rewarding," according to Smoltz. The effort is vital, he said, because
American society is in trouble and it's vital to "prepare kids for battles
in life. ... Kids need the ability to differentiate between evolution and
Christian understanding. ... They need the weapons to defend Christianity,
to be able to understand and debate the differences between religions, to
know what's happening in the world and how to compete."
Smoltz also spoke about his own education, starting with
learning religious ritual and good principles of conduct in Michigan, but
never having "a personal relationship with Christ" or a sense that God, a
heavenly Father who cared for his children, was in charge of all that
happened. Early in the 1990s, Smoltz felt guilty whenever he did anything
wrong, and he worried that fans and writers who put him on a pedestal would
soon knock him off it. In 1996, though, he came to "live without fear" as he
came to understand that "whether I win or lose, God loves me just the same."
Smoltz pitched wonderfully in 1996, winning the Cy Young Award
as the National League's best pitcher after posting a 24-8 record and a 2.94
earned run average. But arm trouble followed in the next several years: "God
started stripping me of my control. My arm went. ... A lot of people have
faith in the process until the process fails us. That's what I faced."
He recalled: "Baseball was God to me. It's God to most of the
people here," he said, gesturing around the Braves' locker room and speaking
intensely. But Smoltz's arm surgery, which left him unable to pitch but with
time to start a Christian school, was "the greatest challenge and the
greatest blessing. ... I realized I don't need baseball. I've gained total
confidence that God is in control. No more fear."
Paradoxically but reasonably, Smoltz's new non-attachment to
baseball success made him more successful. He explained that his new
understanding "doesn't mean I won't put all my effort into the pitch -- God
wants us to compete, hard. But being a baseball player is not who I am, it's
a product of who I am, so I don't have to worry about losing my identity.
Without fear of losing, I can concentrate all my attention on the moment.
... I've gained total confidence that God is in control. No more fear."