At 10 P.M. on July 4th John Smoltz of the Atlanta Braves strode to the mound to face Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa with runners on first and second and the Braves clinging to a narrow lead. Mr. Smoltz pitched aggressively and got two strikes on Mr. Sosa as flashing cameras made the bleachers appear like seating for fireflies. As fans chanted "Smoltzie, Smoltzie," their hero nibbled at the corners of the plate and missed. The count went to three balls, two strikes, and the Atlanta crowd rose, cheering for a strikeout. Then, an anti-climax: The pitcher missed low, the batter stepped lively to first, and the bases were loaded.
Some pitchers in that situation would be angry with themselves. Others would lose confidence. But a successful closer in the major leagues proceeds without self-flagellation or self-doubt-or, as Mr. Smoltz explained in the Braves clubhouse before the game, "without fear."
He said, "Now I know that whether I win or lose, God loves me just the same. Doesn't mean I won't put all my effort into the pitch-God wants us to compete, hard. But being a baseball player is not who I am, it's a product of who I am, so I don't have to worry about losing my identity. Without fear of losing, I can concentrate all my attention on the moment, and that makes me win more often. Makes sense?"
It did to the Chicago batters. Mr. Smoltz struck out the next Cub and encouraged the one following to ground into a game-ending double play. Another save for "Smoltzie," his 15th in a row. A successful starter for a decade until arm trouble sidelined him for almost two seasons, he became this year only the fourth pitcher in major-league history to record at least one season of 20-plus wins and another of 20-plus saves. But more than that, he became (to my knowledge) the only current major-league player who is playing a key role on the board of directors of a successful Christian school start-up.
Mr. Smoltz, 35 years old and the father of four children between the ages of 2 and 10, first joined the board of directors of Mount Pisgah Christian School (a United Methodist institution), but ended up leaving that school and helping to found the independent King's Ridge Christian School. While standing in front of his cubicle in the Braves clubhouse before the July 4th game, he explained that Mount Pisgah shortly before 2000 wanted him on the board "for two obvious reasons: name and notoriety. I cared about the education of my kids, but I said I didn't have a lot of time for board meetings. Then I had surgery [a doctor took a ligament from the pitcher's left forearm and transplanted it into his right elbow] and suddenly had lots of time, so I said yes."
But in agreeing to serve, Mr. Smoltz had unexpectedly parachuted into the middle of a battle over school governance. The 21-member school board wanted to do more than raise funds; it wanted to be able to appoint and hold accountable the school's headmaster. The church leadership said no, and the pitcher was "suddenly in 4, 5-hour board meetings. People were crying about the way things were done. There were serious power issues, accountability issues, and a lot of bitterness."
Citing the "board's move toward self-direction and self-government," the Mount Pisgah United Methodist Church council asked all the board members to resign, and removed them in May, 2000, when they did not. Warren Lathem, then the church's senior pastor and now its chancellor, told WORLD that "the board would not embrace and support the mission of the church for the school." He said areas of disagreement included "curriculum, decision-making process, how the budget would be created and spent."
Those on differing sides in the big divide have different explanations of what went wrong in the relations between school board members and church leaders, but governance was clearly the key issue. Therrell "Sonny" Murphy, who was chairman of the Mt. Pisgah school board and now chairs the King's Ridge board, said, "We wanted it to be a real school board, not just something controlled by the Methodist bureaucracy." David Tinsley, Mount Pisgah's community pastor, stated that "Mount Pisgah's conviction has and always will be that Christian education is the task of the Church, not an independent group of Christians."
Mr. Smoltz put it this way: "We balked at firing the headmaster and we weren't willing to budge. We all stayed together. No one resigned.... We decided to hold a forum to allow parents to be heard. Close to 400 people showed up, and we started to think about a new school, to turn a bad situation into something positive." Mr. Murphy recalled, "John refused to accept defeat. He's a very competitive person in everything he does." Barbara Adler, who became the new school's headmaster, said, "John was the inspiration, the catalyst. He said, 'We're going to start it, we can do it, we're going to do it.'"
Mr. Smoltz, unable to pitch in 2000 and during most of the 2001 season, poured himself into the project. "Building a school takes an incredible amount of time," he noted. "In one sense, I'd rather have another surgery on my arm than go through all this again. But it's been very rewarding ... especially when I see how God brings good out of bad." His happiest day of 2001, he said, did not come late in the season when he began pitching effectively again and became the Braves' closer, but "when I walked in and saw our school opening. I almost broke down.... Through Christ, we had overcome so much."
And the school battles aren't over yet. King's Ridge opened on Sept. 4, 2001, in the Atlanta suburb of Alpharetta. Its 195 K-8 students met in a converted supermarket; 300 students are enrolled for this coming school year. Down the road expansion is likely: The school owns 84 acres on which it wants to build classrooms, an assembly hall, a gym, and a stadium, but a court battle over rezoning the land to allow those uses is now underway. Meanwhile, Mount Pisgah Christian School is continuing, in Mr. Lathem's words, to "work very hard at providing quality Christian education. It has done so impeccably through the years and continues to do so. Mt. Pisgah is the largest Methodist school east of the Mississippi and is above reproach."
Mr. Smoltz is committed to going the distance with King's Ridge. His excellent pitching late in 2001 led the New York Yankees to offer him a $52 million contract to work up north from 2002 to 2005. He almost signed it but, wanting to stay in Atlanta and see King's Ridge develop, instead re-signed with the Braves for $30 million over three years: "Financially, I'll also be a big part of the school. I think that may be the reason God kept me playing.... I feel this school is what I'm called to do." He plans to be involved in "incorporating Christ in all we do-scholastics, athletics, everything. We have people who are intentionally Christian in every aspect of life."
The television sets in the Atlanta clubhouse were turned to CNN (the Braves, after all, are owned by AOL Time Warner) and the big story was of the shooting at the El Al ticket counter at Los Angeles International Airport. Braves left fielder Chipper Jones grimaced and said, "It's happening everywhere," and that led Mr. Smoltz to explain passionately why Christian education should not emphasize only warm fuzzies: "Columbine-how does that happen? The girl dying because she professed her faith ... We want to prepare kids for battles in life."
He waved off a question from fellow pitcher Tom Glavine and continued: "Kids need the ability to differentiate between evolution and Christian understanding.... They need the weapons to defend Christianity, to be able to understand and debate the differences between religions, to know what's happening in the world and how to compete." Sports will be important at King's Ridge: "Many Christian schools don't want to be known for athletics. That's a mistake. We have bodies given us by God, and God didn't call us to be soft. Sports teach us how to compete. They teach perseverance."
Mr. Smoltz also wants to encourage a service component: "The world teaches us to ask, 'What can you do for me to be successful?' Christianity turns around the question. We need to back up faith with action." He concluded, "I almost have more respect for a person who doesn't believe there's a God than for a person who knows about God but doesn't do anything with that knowledge.... So I feel good about my work on the school board. Mount Pisgah was looking for money and a face. They got a stand-up Christian who was willing to fight."