"I'm going to be a pitcher," he said.
"John," she said, "it might be a good idea to have a backup plan if that doesn't work out. Do you have an idea about that?"
"Yeah," he said. "I'll be a gas-station attendant."
When Smoltz was 16, he lost a game in a national amateur baseball tournament in Johnstown, Pa., giving up three home runs in one inning. When he returned home, he grabbed a roll of tape and made a strike zone against the back of the house. Then he taped small squares in all four corners of the rectangle. He grabbed a bucket of 25 baseballs and took dead aim against those squares. When the bucket was empty, he would gather the balls and do it again. The thud of the balls against the back of the Smoltz house could be heard every day after that until the weather turned too cold. "That," his father says, "is when I knew that he would be something special."
His beloved hometown team, the Tigers, selected him out of Lansing's Waverly High in the 22nd round of the 1985 draft. Smoltz is a second cousin of Tigers Hall of Fame second baseman Charlie Gehringer. Smoltz and his father took home a piece of sod from Tiger Stadium and planted it in their backyard after Detroit won the 1984 Series. But the Tigers uprooted Smoltz in '87—he was 20 years old and had pitched in only 38 minor league games—by dealing him to Atlanta for 36-year-old righthander Doyle Alexander. Within two years Smoltz was a major league All-Star.
"It seemed like every year people were picking me to win the Cy Young or were saying I had the best stuff in the league," Smoltz says. "Then it would be, 'Where'd he go? What happened?' That builds up, believe me."
There were times from 1991 through '94 when he stopped calling his parents. "I felt like I was letting my father down," he says. One time when he did call, from Montreal in June 1991, Smoltz seemed to be in such despair about his 2-7 record and lack of run support that when his mother hung up the phone, she told her husband, "That's it. We're going to Montreal." They immediately jumped in the car and drove eight hours, pulling into Montreal at four o'clock in the morning to offer their son comfort. Smoltz lost his next start 2-0.
In that same season a bone spur developed in Smoltz's right elbow. He pitched brilliantly down the stretch and in the postseason (8-0 after Aug. 15), with only sporadic trouble from the spur. The injury grew progressively worse, though, and by '93 his forkball, which he developed the previous season as a change of pace to his 93-mph fastball and sweeping hard slider, was virtually useless. "I was out there on the mound thinking about so many things except the hitter and how to pitch," he says. "I worried about whether throwing the next pitch would hurt. And I was always worried about the expectations."
Smoltz and the Braves knew that surgery was inevitable. Finally, he woke up in his hotel room in Colorado on Aug. 9, 1994, and could not move his arm. He called a masseur for help. The man, who was Russian, spoke little English and knew even less about baseball. He knew enough about both, though, to tell Smoltz, "You no play today."
The players went on strike three days later. On Sept. 8, Braves doctor Joe Chandler removed the spur as well as several bone chips. Remarkably, Smoltz recovered in time to start 1995 in the Atlanta rotation. He was 12-7 with a 3.18 ERA in 192⅔ innings, but he had never fully regained his arm strength after the operation, and it caught up to him. He allowed 11 runs in 15 postseason innings without a decision. In Game 3 of the World Series against the Cleveland Indians, he was knocked out in the third inning. Had the Indians beaten Glavine in Game 6 and tied the Series, Smoltz would have started the fourth Game 7 of his career, his second in a World Series. "Obviously, the Indians felt if they won Game 6, they would win the Series," Smoltz says. "To be honest, I don't know if I had enough left to be as good as I wanted to be."