Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Review: Starting and Closing (2012)

By John Smoltz with Don Yaeger

A strange book, "Starting and Closing."

As Smoltz writes in the early going, "This is not your typical autobiography," and he's right.

Smoltz had one of the truly unusual pitching careers in baseball history. He had great success as a starting pitcher with the Atlanta Braves, which included winning a Cy Young Award in 1996. Then, circumstances (mostly physical) forced him to move to the bullpen for a while, where he became one of the sport's best closers.

All of that will make him a rather untraditional candidate for the Hall of Fame some day. He doesn't have the overwhelming career numbers, such as 300 wins, that others have. Yet he was obviously very good at what he did over the years, and there were a lot of years.

His career, then, somewhat resembles Dennis Eckersley, another very good starting pitcher who switched to closing in mid-career and became one of the best ever in that area.

Throw in the fact that Smoltz played for a Braves team that won 14 straight division titles, and that he usually picked up his game a couple of notches in those frequent postseason appearances, and you have a unique career.

What, then, does Smoltz do in telling a portion of his life story? He throws out most of the interesting stuff.

Much of the book centers on injuries suffered during the course of his career, and how he overcame them. Admittedly, rehab is a difficult, lonely business, and it's not easy to work through pain for months without obvious signs of progress at times. Many can't do it Still, the financial rewards really can be great in baseball if the process is successful (Smoltz earned more than $125 million in his career), a powerful incentive to at least try. And people overcome much worse obstacles than shoulder surgery every day.

Smoltz spends a great deal of time reviewing his final season, in 2009, when he made one last shot at coming back. He signed as a free agent with Boston, got released due to ineffectiveness, and went to St. Louis, where he made some adjustments and found a little success. Some of the best parts of the book come when Smoltz describes what it's like go through the bad times and the good times, relatively speaking, of that last season.

As you'd expect, there are a few tangents taken. There is material about growing up a Tigers' fan in Michigan, getting drafted by the Tigers and then getting traded to the Braves. There are chapters on how he ramped up his level of faith in 1995, and is working with a Christian school in Georgia.

Looking for insight into teammates on those great Braves teams? Don't look here. Smoltz also stays away from most family references, except when necessary (he divorced late in his career). There's also very little fun to be had here. About the only examples of mirth that come up are in the form of tales of a few practical jokes, which usually at best are in the "you had to be there" category of stories

There's also a small sense of anger that occasionally pops up here. The best example is a story involved an iron. He suffered a burn through a mishap, and the story got mangled so that Smoltz was allegedly burned while ironing a shirt that he was still wearing. For the record, it was not true. But such matters do have a life of their own, despite his efforts to set the record straight. It's one of the costs of being a public figure, but the pitcher still seems annoyed by it.

This all bounces around quite a bit as well. In total, there certainly are lessons to be learned about perseverance (which is mentioned in the subtitle), and obviously his drive for success helped him along the way.

But, at some level an autobiography is designed to answer the question, "What's that person like?" If "Starting and Closing" is an accurate answer to that question, then only Smoltz's fans will be enthusiastic about reading the 280 pages necessary to find out.

Two stars

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