John Smoltz was a little bit into his talk when he offered a warning.
“When you hear me speak, be prepared for me to take you all over the place,” the former Atlanta Braves pitcher said Monday night to the audience at Mercer’s First Pitch Classic. “I like to tell people about the things that really impacted my life.”
Smoltz was engaging, inspiring, self-deprecating and instructive as he spoke for nearly 50 minutes to the crowd of nearly 550 on the University Center’s floor. He said at the end that he had rambled enough, but few would have complained if one of the most popular Braves in history kept going.
He talked of his upbringing in Warren and Lansing, Mich., and of giving up the accordion at age 7 because, as he told his parents succinctly that he was going to be a major league pitcher.
And when his mother inquired about a fall-back option?
A gas station attendant.
But his parents, as well as his early efforts on the accordion, set in place a lifetime of a philosophy.
“They taught me that obviously God was first, school was second, obviously family was right there under God,” he said. “All I knew from the accordion days is that I had the structure, the discipline, determination to go after something, and go for it as far and as long as I can.”
Smoltz, who said he’d follow Mercer and give the Bears a “shout out” during one of his telecasts, talked about how the trade of him to Atlanta for Doyle Alexander changed his life, as did deciding at the final minute to sign with Detroit after the 1985 draft rather than go to Michigan State.
He praised his parents often for instilling quality character traits that served him well through injuries and team struggles, his transition from starter to closer to starter again, as well as the end of his playing career and beginning of his retirement life.
Smoltz’s top memory from his career was more collective than specific.
“For a guy who came over from the Detroit Tigers, who at that time were coming off a World Series victory in ’84 -- they were having a successful run -- to go to an organization that absolutely had nothing other than Dale Murphy, what an absolute joy and what an unbelievable run, starting in 1991, that ultimately was a championship in 1995,” Smoltz said. ‘We should undoubtedly have won more championships, but we didn’t.
“But we had 14 unbelievable years together in the run that I would do all over again, even if I knew that I could go to another team and only go twice and win two championships.
“(The year) 1995 was the greatest feeling in the world, from a bunch of guys who started and built the organization from nothing to winning the first major championship and literally the only championship in Atlanta sports history. (It) was the most unbelievable feeling.”