Leave it to John Smoltz to find a way back to the World Series. A Hall of Famer and one of the baseball’s most successful postseason pitchers during his tenure as a Brave, Smoltz debuted with Joe Buck as Fox’s primary color analyst for the World Series this week, and it was no fluke.
Smoltz has been eye-balling Tim McCarver’s chair in the Fox broadcast booth for a while.
“Once I found out I was getting into this industry and TBS gave me a chance, I wanted to do the World Series,” Smoltz said. “… I didn’t know if there would ever be a possibility, but I told my agent ‘If I’m going to get into this, I’m only getting in this to try to get to the top.’ It’s everything that I’m all about. It’s not an ego thing. It’s just I want to always shoot for the best possible scenario. And to me the World Series is exactly that.”
Smoltz got into broadcasting during the 2008 postseason, while he was injured as a player. Alongside Joe Simpson and Brian Anderson in the TBS booth, he remembers hearing producers say “lay out, lay out,” into his headset during a big moment and having no clue what they meant.
“I looked to my left and he didn’t say anything, and I looked to my right and he didn’t say anything, so I figured the best thing to do was not say anything,” Smoltz said, before Game 2 in Cleveland. “That’s exactly what ‘lay out’ means, but I didn’t know.”
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Just eight years later, having worked for both Turner and MLB Network, Smoltz is setting up play-by-play man Buck with ease. They worked together only sporadically before October, but Buck has taken to completing Smoltz’s sentences.
Shortly after pointing out that the Cubs’ Kris Bryant had been timing Zach McAllister’s fastball in Game 2, Smoltz said, “McAllister might want to think about throwing a wrinkle here soon.”
The next pitch was a curveball. “And he did,” Buck said, as Bryant struck out.
Smoltz predicted pitches throughout the first two games. He said that despite the six-run lead, Indians’ closer Cody Allen might want to “spin one right here just to get a strikeout,” right before he did. Moments after Smoltz pointed out that the Cubs’ Addison Russell was weak against the curveball, Corey Kluber struck him out looking at one. Smoltz explained why Indians reliever Andrew Miller should throw David Ross a 3-2 slider with the bases loaded and then watched him strike Ross out with one.
“I don’t have to be right,” Smoltz said. “… but I think getting out in front and helping the viewer think along with the game, makes it a creative way to watch the game instead of just reacting, like ‘Ah, he threw a slider.’”
That is exactly what longtime TBS senior coordinating producer Glenn Diamond encouraged Smoltz to do when his early temptation was to rely on statistics.
“(He) said, ‘Don’t give me anything that anybody at home can look up on their computer,’” Smoltz said. “’Give me stuff that they have no idea about because you played the game.’”
Diamond said he knew Smoltz was onto something during a Braves broadcast in Philadelphia when Smoltz broke down how Kris Medlen should get out of a bases-loaded no-out jam and then watched Medlen do it nearly pitch for pitch.
“I thought ‘whoa’,” Diamond said.
Smoltz still brought handwritten notes to the World Series booth and an iPad full of files on each pitcher, but what showed up most during the first two broadcasts was all the hours he put in watching video. If Smoltz sounded like a pitcher prepared to take on the Cubs or Indians lineup, it’s because he had scouted them as if he would.
“He doesn’t just show up at game time,” said Diamond, who watched from his home in Roswell, like a “proud professor.” “Yes, he had the name John Smoltz. But he did the nitty-gritty work. He went up to MLB Network. He’s put in his time. He’s sacrificed a lot in travel because he wanted to get here. He set his mind to it, and here he is.”
Smoltz had the good fortune of hitting his stride the year after McCarver retired, not to mention a stroke of luck: a technical failure during last year’s World Series.
Smoltz was calling Game 1 for MLB International when a generator blew in Fox’s production truck and Fox had to use the MLB International feed for nearly an inning. That put Smolz and play-by-play man Matt Vasgersian into living rooms around the country.
The executives at Fox heard something Braves fans had known for a while. Smoltz knows what he’s talking about, and he’s engaging. And even now that he’s on the big stage again, having replaced Harold Reynolds and Tom Verducci in the Fox booth, he still finds way to be “Smoltzie.”
Gone is his corny “joke of the day,” but in Game 1 Smoltz still cracked about how ironic it was that the Indians’ Mike Napoli had suffered from sleep apnea when “nap” is part of his name. And in Game 2, he talked Buck into reading a promo for his hometown Detroit Lions.
Braves fans know better than anybody how seriously Smoltz takes the month of October. He didn’t even pack his golf clubs.
“I’m just too busy,” Smoltz said. “The old me would have found ways. But this is too important.”