Hall of Famer John Smoltz addresses Virginia baseball team looking to rebound from difficult 2018

Story by Zach Perelesjohn smoltz

A 21-year MLB career, a World Series ring, a Cy Young award, eight All Star selections and, in 2015, a Hall of Fame induction. In every sense of the word, John Smoltz’s career was a resounding success.

But that doesn’t mean he didn’t experience failure along the way.

“Who I am is defined by failure,” Smoltz said Saturday at Virginia baseball’s 17th Annual Step Up to the Plate event. “If you’re going to know about John Smoltz, you’re going to know about failure. Failure is the greatest motivator to success, and it’s the greatest motivator to greatness.”

Take Smoltz’s 1991 season. He had just become a first-time father. Heading into the All Star break, he had a record of 2-11, and a demotion from the starting rotation seemed imminent.

Smoltz finished the year 14-13. The next year, in 1992, he was an All Star. The same went for 1993. The rest, as his career accomplishments suggest, is history. But if it hadn’t been for that low point a young Smoltz experienced in 1991, he may have never been the pitcher he was.

“The great manager — the Hall-of-Fame manager — Bobby Cox stuck with me,” Smoltz said. “I knew I couldn’t have stayed, at that rate, in the rotation, but I turned it around and went 12-2. … There’s no way you can do that without the confidence of your manager or the ability to overcome failure.”

That’s what made Smoltz, now 51, a perfect candidate to address this year’s Virginia baseball team Saturday in Charlottesville. The Cavaliers are coming off a disappointing campaign that saw them miss the postseason for the first time since Brian O’Connor took over in 2004.

“We’ve had some really, really special people come in here and talk to our men over the 15 years that I’ve been the coach here — a lot of Hall of Famers,” O’Connor said. “Those 30 minutes John [spent with the team] were as impactful as I’ve heard.”

As Smoltz talked, he found an engaged, receptive Virginia squad that had plenty of questions.

“The biggest thing that I am impressed with [by] young players is when they’re able to ask questions,” Smoltz said. “Many people, personality-wise, don’t feel comfortable asking questions, so it’s good that they ask questions. … If you can give them a little key or successful tips to get better, I think that’s something everybody would love. I would have asked the same questions if I [were] in their shoes.”

Of course, like Smoltz, O’Connor has had success year-in and year-out, something that’s not easy to establish. Smoltz, who pitched until he was 42, knows that as well as anyone, and that’s what gives him great respect for Virginia’s coach.

“I can only imagine every year the expectations with a different crop of players and a different talent pool where everybody’s trying to get to not only his level but knock him down from the level he’s created,” Smoltz said. “I think with any successful program, person, coach or mentor, you have your underlying non-negotiables, and then you’re willing to change with time. … I’ve seen a lot of great leaders be able to stay true to who they are, still adapt, still learn how to be different in this day and age but not forego or compromise what they believe.”

O’Connor, in turn, believes Smoltz’s words will stay with the team as it hopes to return to the postseason in 2019.

“His message to the group of our guys was really, really impactful, and I know our guys will take it well, and certainly, hopefully, it helps them continue to improve as individuals and also as a group,” O’Connor said.


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