John Smoltz is the best closer in baseball. But to hear him tell it, he still misses the old one.
Want to know what's in my head when I get the call in the bullpen? Nothing but BS. Blown Save. It's scary, actually, because I was never afraid of anything as a starter other than the home run ball. I was capable of giving up home runs because I always went right after guys. But as a closer, I've realized in a short time, there's no margin for error.
The home run ball used to be something I shrugged off. Now it's a crusher, the ultimate humiliation. It's all BS for me. I've got five blown saves since I became the closer late last year. In all four this season, the winning run has come across with two outs, when I was basically one pitch away from saving the game. It's just gut-wrenching. If you allow yourself to think, well, I'm going to blow some, and I'll just deal with them as they come, then you don't get it. The 60-something saves don't matter as much to me as the ones I've blown.
I gave up eight runs to the Mets in my second game this year. Something I didn't think possible. Like a bad dream. But it made me feel like I was capable of doing that every time out there, and in a way, that was good. That fear, that pressure, allowed me to stay away from thinking this was ever going to be an easy job. People ask me what I think about when I go out there. I think about giving it up. How can that be good? I don't know. But it's good for me. I love to be in that position, but it's not easy. When you lose a game in this role, doesn't matter how it happened, bad call or bloop hit. It's all BS.
When I was out injured for all of the 2000 season and most of 2001, nothing could have been further from my mind than where I am today. Really, it was a relief to find out I needed reconstructive surgery on my elbow. Because if more rehab or rest had been prescribed, I thought I might have to retire. I don't want to overplay the feeling of what I went through, because it doesn't relate well to real-life tragedies, but in my sport, I was having no fun. I was miserable. I tried to override pain with power, and it was not fun. The pain was great enough that there were times I ripped my shirt off and said, "This is it, I'm done." I really don't know why I kept going. I do know I'm glad I did.
Looking back, if I knew then what I know now, that I was going to be the closer, I'd have come back differently—built up my arm strength a different way. But I was set on returning to my old role as a starter, so I prepared as usual. The ironic thing is that every year in the postseason, except last year, I always offered to close. And I always got turned down. And the year I didn't offer it, I really didn't want to do it. But it was all I could do. I didn't have the endurance to be an effective starting pitcher last year, so I got out there in a pennant race, and then in the playoffs, and my elbow was starting to feel healthy. I had such adrenaline, I was throwing 99 mph, harder than I'd ever thrown in my life. I literally could've thrown only fastballs and not gotten hit. I guess that's all the Braves needed to see. Suddenly, everyone was saying I was the closer the Braves never had.
This spring, people were coming up to me and saying, "Man, you may not give up a run the whole year." I was like, "Yeah, right." But whether it's fair or not to be cast as a savior, I accept the challenge of the role. Our past is a big part of my willingness to take it on. It might be different if we hadn't come so close to winning it all so many times. But we were so close. Even the '99 World Series, when we got swept by the Yankees, we had opportunities to win almost every game. If we hadn't shown up for the postseason after winning it all in 1995, people wouldn't be saying anything. But we've put ourselves in position so many times that people naturally say, "What if?" Who knows, maybe I'll get a chance to change some of that this year. At least that's what I'm hoping for.
I've never been a guy with a big ego that needed to be fed, but in a weird way, I've been in the shadow of Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, two great pitchers, most of my career. And now people are looking at this, my first full season as a closer, as a defining moment. And there's a part of me that wants to say, "I've been a good pitcher for a long time." I've had to pitch through injuries and I've missed a lot of time with injuries, but when it comes to postseason or the ability to adapt, to throw sidearm for a while, to turn in a big game, I know I can pitch.
But when you're given the "stuff" tag, you're thought of differently. I was always the Braves pitcher with the "best stuff." I was always supposed to do more. I was supposed to win four Cy Youngs, according to experts. I was supposed to win 20 games four or five times. It's almost like people think if you've got the "stuff," it's easy. Or that you don't have to work hard to have "stuff." Now, it's funny, people are saying I've found my niche, this is going to get me to the Hall of Fame. I don't buy into that, either. Being a closer is not something I was forced to do, or could only do. This is something I chose to do. Sure, there was sort of a stiff-arm to it. But I felt this move would give my team the best chance to win it all again. There are no secrets here. My mentality is the same as when I was a starter. I go after it the same way. Hard with three pitches. Fastball, slider, split. If I did things too differently, I'd have probably gotten my brains beat in.
I'll never forget trying to pitch cute like Glavine, like eight years ago, and I got lit up. So, like Popeye, I am what I am. The difference is in the ninth inning. I've been there so many times as a starter, on a half-empty tank—now I feel I've got a little more in those situations. The toughest part is that you can't control what's given to you. You can't control anything as a closer. You can't come to the ballpark feeling great, and knowing you're going to get a chance to pitch on that day. I've been through 300-inning seasons, counting postseason, and I've been exhausted. And I'd look at the closer's workload, 80-90 innings, and say, "What's the big deal?" Well, I've learned it is a big deal. It's a physical change. A mental change. I'm more appreciative now. Getting three outs is easy. If you simplify it, yeah, it's easy. But it's not easy day in and day out. It's not easy five out of six times. Not when you're in games where there's no breathing room.
You guys at ESPN have that show, The Life. Well, The Life is starting pitching. If you're good at it, you can't convince me otherwise. You can get in a routine. Pitch Monday. Work out hard Tuesday. Whatever your routine. You can shut down mentally. You can enjoy the four days after you pitch. I know I did. I played golf, helped out at home with the family. You could prepare for your day by refreshing mentally. It's so different from my life now. Every day now, I know I could be in. Even though the reality is I'm not going to be in every day, I still have to prepare for it. You can't come in and think for a second, I'm not going to pitch today. You do that, and for sure you're going to find yourself in there.
As a starter, you want your team to win, but between starts, what can you do other than sit there and watch the game? Of course, you learn from watching, but you can't really do anything to help when you're not in there. Can you cheer the team to victory? No. Literally, you're involved, but you're detached. If anything, you're watching the game and thinking about your next start. Now I rely on everybody else to do their job so I can get a chance to do mine. And there are nights when you're in the game, then you're not in the game, then you're back in the game, then you score some runs and you're not in the game. You have to let the game come to you and be ready for anything.
But one thing I know, there's absolutely no structure to it. Do I miss the structured lifestyle? Heck yeah. Who wouldn't? I won the Cy Young in 1996 when it was basically given to me at the All-Star break (I was 14-4), which was a really unfair proposition. It was mine to lose, everyone said. I was like, how can I have never won this thing, and now it's mine to lose? Well, that's like my life now. When I get into a game now, it's mine to lose. And what am I thinking, every single time? BS.
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