Throwing heat and fighting fear

Posted: Sep 17, 2002 12:00 AM
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 pitcher. 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 evangelistic gambits. "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."