George Will's major baseball book has the title Men at Work; he makes the pursuit of hits and strikeouts a grim task. John Smoltz is serious enough to talk about Christian education for close to an hour while some of his teammates were playing cards and tossing towels into laundry bins, but intellectually playful enough to discuss evangelistic gambits. "How's this for an icebreaker question?" he asked: "How many days in a row have you been happy?"
Mr. Smoltz explained, "You're supposed to have happiness and joy every single day, but so many things ruin the moment and ruin the witness." He talked about experiencing his share of potentially ruinous things, starting with learning religious ritual and good principles of conduct in Michigan, but never having "a personal relationship with Christ." That left him "beating up myself with guilt" at the same time that the world was applauding: "In this game the public puts you on a pedestal. Before '96 it was all about me. But read Galatians: God is not mocked."
One year of change for the pitcher was 1996: "I had gone to a sports psychologist, but that whole story was hyped. It kept going and going, and writers kept writing it without ever asking me about it.... The real change is that in '96 I began to understand that apart from Christ, we can do nothing. I started to have a peace about things." That year was Mr. Smoltz's best as a starting pitcher: He won the Cy Young Award as the National League's best pitcher after posting a 24-8 record and a 2.94 Earned Run Average.
But arm trouble followed in the next several years: "God started stripping me of my control. My arm went.... A lot of people have faith in the process until the process fails us. That's what I faced." Mr. Smoltz said he had "always gone to church, and to Baseball Chapel." (That organization fosters Bible studies among players and players' wives throughout the week, and brings players together for prayer and preaching before Sunday games.) Nevertheless, "baseball was God to me. It's God to most of the people here," he said, gesturing around the clubhouse and speaking intensely. "This last year has been the greatest challenge and the greatest blessing," he added, because "I realized I don't need baseball. I've gained total confidence that God is in control. No more fear."
During the off-season the Smoltz family attends Perimeter Church, an Atlanta-area member of the Presbyterian Church in America. He said that Unlimited Potential, Inc., an evangelistic organization with the motto, "Serving Christ Through Baseball," has also been helpful as he's thought more about the practical applications of his faith to his job: "I won't buy into the idea that you throw a pitch and it doesn't matter whether you put all your effort into it, because it's up to Him. We're supposed to compete in the best way.... But the important thing is whether I submit to His will. How we react to what happens, that's what is important."
Mr. Smoltz, in short, is an unusual player who combines curiosity about life with theological certainty. He's been learning about different worldviews: "People say mankind is good. The Bible and life both teach us that's not so. The worst thing is to say I'm a good guy, you're a good guy. Society is my worst friend. It often keeps us from Christ." He's also learned some things about different religions: "Did you know that probably the most religious people in the world are Buddhists, but it's ritual?" But he emphasizes this lesson: "There's one way to God, not many highways, and I know that my hope is in Him, not in Cy Young awards."