MILTON, Ga. – Eleven young baseball players from the Hopewell Youth Association in Milton had the surprise of a lifetime when former Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz attended their Monday afternoon practice April 9.
Greg Wagner, coach of the 9-year-old Hopewell Hawks travel baseball team, won time with John Smoltz by donating to a charity fundraiser hosted by local sports radio station 790 The Zone. Proceeds from the radio event benefitted Camp Twin Lakes, a special needs camp in Rutledge, Ga.
Wagner chose to share the prize with his son’s baseball team, giving the young athletes an experience they will never forget.
Walking onto the Hawks’ field at Bell Memorial Park, Smoltz received wide-eyed stares of disbelief from the surprised players. Laughing, Smoltz chatted with the boys for a bit before switching into coach mode, evaluating each player’s pitching skills and giving helpful pointers and advice.
Chris DiMino, co-host of 790 The Zone’s “Mayhem in the A.M.,” witnessed the event and later praised Smoltz on his morning radio show.
“These kids had a future Hall of Famer giving them a pitching lesson,” said DiMino. “John Smoltz was there for almost two hours. Every single kid on the team threw off the mound. Then he went through a full-blown Q&A, signed anything and everything, took every picture. It was incredible.”
DiMino feels that the charity work done by many professional baseball players is not talked about enough.
“Smoltz is a great guy who gives a lot back to his local community,” he said.
For Wagner, watching Smoltz give pitching tips to Wagner’s son Finn was a “surreal” experience.
“Smoltz’s run in the early ’90s when the Braves started winning divisions was when I fell back in love with baseball,” he said.
Smoltz was 21 when he joined the Atlanta Braves in 1988. He remained with the team for 20 years, winning the 1995 World Series and receiving numerous awards including the coveted Cy Young Award, given to the best pitchers in Major League Baseball.
Smoltz told the Hopewell Hawks that when it comes to pitching, practice really does make perfect. As a kid, Smoltz would tape a strike zone onto the brick wall of his house and practice throwing pitch after pitch until his mother called him in for dinner.
“The more comfortable you are with the mechanics, the more strikes you are going to throw,” he said.
Yet he also warned the boys of the dangers of burning out too soon.
“It’s great to have goals, but don’t narrow your focus too early. It’s important to play a variety of sports as a kid to discover where your true talents lie. You won’t find the sport. The sport will find you. Your body type will determine the best sport for you as you grow,” he said.
Smoltz recalled that he was the smallest kid on every team he played on until his junior year in high school, when the rest of his body caught up with his size 12 feet. It was then that he began to truly believe that he could achieve his goal of being a professional baseball player.
Smoltz patiently answered many questions from the young Hawks, describing his favorite baseball team as a kid (Detroit Tigers), his favorite stadium to play in (Houston Astrodome) and the hardest team he ever faced (New York Yankees).
When asked which fellow players he most respected, Smoltz was quick to answer.
“Dale Murphy,” he said. “It was a treat to play with him. I really admired the way he played and how he treated people. He gave me my first nickname, ‘Marmaduke.’ Also, Tom Glavine. We went through the most together. I really respected how he never shied away from a challenge and never gave in to pressure or physical injury.”
As for the best moment in his career, Smoltz smiled and replied, “There were many, but I would have to say jumping on the dog pile after winning the World Series was the best. Nothing beats that moment.”
For the young Hopewell Hawks, the memory of their afternoon with John Smoltz will be pretty hard to beat as well.