There have been 18,245 major league baseball players in the last 140 years, according to Baseball-Reference.com, of which only 215 have been elected to the Hall of Fame. So to make it to Cooperstown, a player must have the talent and drive to be recognized as one of the top 1.2 percent in his profession, as well as the lab results to confirm he’s not a chemical creation.
The one-percent club welcomes John Smoltz. The former Braves’ pitcher will be inducted into the Hall of Fame Sunday. He was a medical wonder, as doctors checked off several pages of Gray’s Anatomy to keep him together. He won 213 games as a starter, saved 154 as a closer, struck out more than 3,000 and is the rare Brave equated with October success (15-4).
He also might be the most competitive athlete in franchise history – and, to that end, a little crazy.
“The most competitive human being I’ve ever known,” said comedian Jeff Foxworthy, Smoltz’s close friend. “We show up at his house one night when he invited 10 people over for dinner. John’s at the front door and he’s dressed in a complete hockey goalie’s uniform. He say, ‘Follow me’ and I follow him to the garage and he has a net set up with these plastic hockey balls, like pucks.”
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At this point, Foxworthy is half-wondering if his poor friend had been hit with one too many pucks.
“He says, ‘I guarantee you can’t get one by me.’ I grew in Atlanta. I don’t know a thing about hockey. But John gives me a stick and says, ‘Take a shot.’ And my first shot goes between his ankles. I lay down the stick and start to walk away. He says, ‘Come back here! Take another one!’ I said, ‘Not only can you not stop me, but you’ve never stopped a shot of mine’ and I walked out. To this day it drives him crazy.”
It’s not surprising. Smoltz often challenged teammates to competitions. He had a putting green set up in the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. More than a few wagers took place on the golf course. His house has a basketball court, a bass fishing pond, a golf course, a whiffle ball field and a football field.
“It’s a little kid’s Disneyland,” Foxworthy said.
The more games, the more challenges, the more double-dog-dares.
Being competitive is a common trait for athletes. “But or John it wasn’t just baseball,” said Tom Glavine, his former teammate and a Hall of Famer. “He wasn’t a guy who made his start and then turned it off for four days. He thrived on competition all the time. John would bet you on whether the sun would come up the next morning.”
Most of all, he bet on himself.
He did things that teammates, opponents and doctors didn’t believe he could do. He had Tommy John surgery, missed the 2000 season and returned as a closer late in 2001, effectively to extend his career. When he felt the team needed him back in the rotation four years later, he pushed management to let him start again. Against all medical and baseball logic, he succeeded.
He told himself on the mound, “I can do this,” just like a crazy trick-shot putt in the clubhouse. His brain made a friendly wager with his arm. Or maybe it was the other way around.
We thought John Smoltz was nuts. But you wanted that kind of nuts on your team.
“Everything is always, I’ll show you,” Foxworthy said.
When Smoltz was putting in his backyard fun land, a backhoe was parked on his property. Smoltz bet the world he could learn how to drive it.
“One day we’re at Bible study and John walks in and he’s got all of these cuts and scratches on his head,” Foxworthy said. “It turns out the back hoe was filled with rocks and dirt and junk. When John went to dump it, he dropped it all on his head.”
Makes you wonder about the veracity of the famous iron story. In spring training in 1990, Smoltz showed up at the stadium with burn marks on his neck. Stories circulated that he had burned himself while trying to iron a shirt while wearing it. The story was written without Smoltz’s confirmation, and he later denied it, saying he was using a portable steamer to try to get wrinkles out of his shirt but when he picked it up it spit water on him. But the tale has never really denied.
(True story: A friend in New York has artwork hanging on his wall, “Strangest baseball injuries,” that includes a characture of Smoltz. I took a picture of it and texted it to Smoltz. He wasn’t amused.)
Foxworthy laughs at Smoltz’s denials of the iron story: “I’m not totally convinced, just knowing some of the other things I’ve seen.”
Like the time he showed up with a large gash on top of his head, “like there was a knife sticking out of it,” Foxworthy said. “He was trying to show off one of his basketball moves but when he jumped he forgot he was in a doorway.”
Another one: “One year for Christmas, one of the kids got this game where you bouncelittle metal ball bearings and try to get points, like Skeeball. One of the kid’s top score was 47. So John wants to play it and one day I walk by and the score reads, “289.”
Another one: “I could beat him in Nintendo video golf. Drove him crazy. But he would destroy my brother and I in Nintendo baseball. He figured out how to do something with the runner. He could turn a bunt into an inside-the-park home run.”
Smoltz also tried the hockey-goalie thing against Glavine. Big mistake. Glavine grew up playing hockey and was selected in the NHL draft. “That’s one thing he wasn’t nearly as good at as he thought,” Glavine said.
I asked Foxworthy: “Who’s better: You as a baseball player or him as a comedian?”
“I’d have to say me. At least I went to Braves fantasy camp one year. John’s a horrible comedian. When he went into broadcasting, he would call me at 7:05 before going on the air and say, ‘I need a joke.’ If the joke didn’t work, he’d say, ‘That’s Foxworthy’s joke.’ I finally went to Barnes and Noble one day and bought him $100 worth of joke books. He was on his own.”
At least in baseball, he has nothing left to prove.