Cover Story

Throwing heat and taking heat

If major-league baseball avoids the foolishness of a strike next month and moves toward playoffs and the World Series, Atlanta's John Smoltz is likely to be on the mound in the ninth inning of his team's crucial games. If baseball does go on strike, the pitcher will have more time to devote to his new calling: helping to lead a Christian school that in several weeks will begin its second year

Issue: "John Smoltz: The closer," Aug. 3, 2002

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?"

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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.'"

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