A Hall of Fame career conditioned John Smoltz to avoid the noise of praise and criticism from the outside world. But despite that stance, it’s quite clear Smoltz cares deeply about doing well in his work as an analyst for MLB Network on MLB Tonight and as an announcer for TBS and FOX, where he’ll be in the booth for the World Series.
When we met up with Smoltz at the MLB Network offices in late September, he explained his efforts to excel and his operating philosophy when it comes to announcing. But if you really want to see some intensity, talk to Smoltz about the analytical divide and the specialization of pitchers and how it’s damaging the game of baseball.
As a fan, what was your favorite World Series memory?
My favorite is going to be 1984. And I went to the clinching game at Tiger Stadium.
Were you in their system at that point?
I got drafted the next year. 1984 was something special. Started the year 35-5 and finished it off, which is pretty incredible. I had never seen anything like that before. And then, obviously, I knew I was close to possibly getting drafted. Then to get drafted by them, it was like a dream come true.
Any memories of announcers from back then?
You know, I remember the days of when the networks had it and they shared it. It was ABC, and then NBC, and CBS, and just being able to watch those games, whether it was Jack Buck or whether it was Al Michaels. Growing up, the Game of the Week was the biggest thing that you could do and watch. I think they had Monday Night Baseball back then, before Monday Night Football.
Today, there’s so much exposure and there’s so much opportunity to watch a game, that the game of the weeks maybe don’t have the flavor it once did, because there wasn’t so much access. Mel Allen and This Week in Baseball was something I always watched. There was a little bit more of a uniqueness to it, I guess.
How has the game changed since you retired and what’s the biggest shock that you realized after you stepped away?
Oh, gosh. That’s a great question because the game has drastically changed, it’s not even remotely close to a little bit of change. It’s a drastic change. It’s a drastic shift, that just, for the record, I don’t think can continue.
You’re talking about pitching, with the specialization?
Yeah. The injuries. The time of game. A lot of things that are taking away from the greatness of the game, that in a vacuum … individual games, it may work. But over 162 games, it may suck the life out of the fanbase … and/or the injury factor. You know, we don’t have as many superstars staying with teams. We don’t even have as many superstars in the pitching world because it is so diluted and fragmented to a specialized role.
The game from the youth level on up is almost out of control, because of how they are creating these robotic type players. We’ve never had greater athletes. We’ve never had greater bodies. But it’s not producing the results. And I don’t mean statistical results. They are not able to do what you are asking them to do. We’ve dumbed it down to such a level, that we’ve almost become fragile, yet we’re stronger, faster. We have more technology, more information. Like, it’s almost backward.
I can only imagine what the generation before me must have felt when they were watching the decline of innings. Although, not maybe as great of a decline, but the decline of innings has gone to a point where we’re going to have a hard time finding a guy to throw 200 innings in the near future.
And get 300 wins.
I’m trying to think of the equivalent if you took something away from the sport and all of a sudden NFL turned into arena football. What has always been consistent with the NFL has always been a great defense usually wins. It’s harder to outscore everybody. But if you turn the football component, like what baseball has done, you take the meat and the strength of starting pitching out of the game, you’re going to end up getting a different product.
How important is it to establish a chemistry with your fellow announcers versus what you had to establish as a player with teammates? One in the same?
It kind of is. We’re on a different team and everybody has their own individual parts that they bring to the team. It’s a unique environment here [at MLB Network], where you have 24/7 baseball. When you are with the team [as a player], it’s not 24/7. You would think it is, but we have a lot of time away on buses, planes, and in the clubhouses. So you’re still going to have different personalities. You’re still going to have different philosophies.
It’s a balance of what’s infused the game. From an analytical perspective and the guys who’ve played the game, you almost sense that the guys who’ve played the game don’t know what they’re talking about. And that’s kind of the feeling, sometimes, where you integrate and you learn how to blend, and you learn how to take a little from—but it just seems like right now, there’s a side that doesn’t want to blend as much because they feel like they’ve given you the answers, so why aren’t you understanding?
Where do you come down on the analytics divide?
I think it’s balance. There’s got to be balance in everything. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked this question: “I know you’ve done it, but you can’t tell me, fill in the blank.” When somebody says that to you, “I know you’ve done it, but …” it would be like me saying, “I know you’ve written articles and done many interviews. But you can’t tell me using a pen is better than literally writing on your iPad.” And you would look at me like, “Well, there’s no reason for me to answer that question because you’ve already prefaced it by saying, ‘I know you’ve done it,’ but …”
I imagine it depends on the situation.
Well, the situations are usually what they don’t understand. So when a computer spits something out and here’s the documented answers, that’s what they understand. But what goes behind that is way beyond their pay scale. And that’s where words like clutch, camaraderie, clubhouse, atmosphere, and chemistry—they don’t understand those words. They don’t make sense because there’s nothing that comes out of a computer that even deals with that.
Those are the factors that really drive modern-day players a little bit loopy, where they go, “We’ve dressed 180 days, we’ve gone through the battle, we don’t feel good sometimes, guys.” There are components that they don’t understand that affect making a decision on a day to day basis. So with the ideas that have run out in front of baseball, that are now basically pushing baseball, it’s becoming—I don’t want to say out of control. It’s becoming the carts before the horse. It’s a little backward in some areas.
I was in Baltimore at the end of August for a week—two walk-offs and a one-hit complete game. That team was electric. You could see them coming to life from the stands. Then they hit that losing streak and it was just instant deflation. I don’t think people understand the mood thing. You can’t really quantify that with statistics.
No. When a manager sits in a locker room and he has the basis of 25 different personalities, and there might be a problem at home, and a guy might be exhausted, and a guy’s just not feeling good, those are components he’s using to make decisions. It doesn’t matter what the stats say. You’ve got a problem at home, it affects you sometimes in the game, and certainly in the clubhouse. If you’re physically fatigued or mentally fatigued, it’s going to affect your outcome. So when people think that everything’s weighted equally and that each person can do multiple roles, they don’t understand what goes into that.
Here’s what they understand: if your tired and your arm blows out, “Sorry, get another guy.”
They just think everything’s replaceable. And they want to quantify things in a way that makes everything context-neutral, and it just doesn’t. It doesn’t work that way.
What is it about announcing that made you want to pursue this, as opposed to staying in the game as an executive or a coach?
I just thought I could plan my life. When I was done playing baseball, I was going to go into competitive golf, and, someday, senior tour. Well, I’m 50 now and we’ll see if that “someday” happens. But I never envisioned myself off a 21-year career staying in the game that made me feel like I still was a player. So, coach, as much as I love the Rubik’s Cube of trying to put together 12 pitchers and trying to find a way to maximize their talents—which, I love coaching, I coached basketball for four years, I love it—that was never going to be in my DNA. I couldn’t do that to my family, and I just couldn’t do that to myself.
The announcing thing fell in place with the perfect storm. 2008, I got hurt. I still wanted to come back. They offered me the opportunity to do a playoff series for TBS, I took it. I said, “Great. But understand, I want to play next year.” They’re like, “No problem.”
Played 2009. Thought I would play in 2010; I didn’t. A spot opened up for TBS. Baseball and postseason. I was like, “Great, I had a cup of coffee that I enjoyed. Try it out.”
I’m a type of person, that if I get involved in something, I want to go to the best and highest level and be the best I can be. I don’t want to check in and just do something. I don’t like checking a box. So, I told my agent, if I’m going to do this, I want to do the World Series, so what do I have to do, and how do I get there?
So TBS led me to MLB Network. That gave me an opportunity to work for Fox. And, I tell people I’ve never worked harder in my life. I’ve literally had to spend most of my time traveling. But at the same time, most of my time doing information and—not overkill, but you can go blind with numbers and blind with information, and I have to balance that. So I’m one of those guys that always want to be prepared. And sometimes, I’m over-prepared, where that can hurt. I’m still trying to find a balance, if that makes sense.
Last year, the World Series, even though it was my first one, it felt completely comfortable. I felt like even the game was slower to broadcast. Much like as a player [as] it was to play. And it was really cool to have things play out. I never thought about anything. I never thought about saying the right thing, I just reacted and things happened. And all of a
sudden people were like, “Wow, how did you know?”
To me, my job now is to kind of educate while the game is going on, from a guy who played the game. The game is not easy. It never will be easy. And don’t ever make it seem like what you did was easier than what the guys are doing today. And that’s basically been my motto. I’ve never watched one game I’ve done. I don’t know if I’m supposed to. I know some people do. I just haven’t.
I can understand that.
I don’t read anything people say. I go on what my bosses feel of the job that I’m either doing or not doing. And, from that aspect, I don’t have to be consumed with what the positive or the negative.
Some people say, “I’ll just read the positive.” No, you can get carried away with either, in my opinion. It’s nice, but that’s just not what I do.
You could drive yourself crazy one way or the other if you pay too much attention.
I’ve had a million compliments by people that are flattering and nice when I run into them. It’s amazing how many people watched Game 7 [of the 2016 World Series]. I get to work with some of the greatest, if not the greatest, announcers in the game that make my job a little bit easier. But, from the essence of who I am, I’m not afraid to laugh, learn, make mistakes. And I’m sure I’ll make my share of them.
Do you ever hear anything from players that you knew when you were playing or guys that are playing now? Any negative feedback?
Only a couple where I might have said something that may have rubbed somebody the wrong way. But, for the most part, it’s all been former players and current players that’ve told me, “Thanks for remembering how hard the game was.”
The first thing people said to me, “John, how are you going to criticize your contemporary players?” I said, “Well, first of all, it depends on how you look at what criticism is.” To me, if you do the same thing three times, it’s going to be harsh criticism. But if you make a mistake, my job is to explain why that mistake is even made, and why it’s capable of being made. But if you don’t adjust from those mistakes, then it’s very difficult for me to defend a player. So my criticism’s a little different. Mine’s as if I was doing it and what I would expect myself to do and how to learn from that mistake. So that people at home sitting there and going, “I could hit this guy.” Or, “I could hit .220.” No you can’t and let me explain to you why, so that you don’t get misled by some mediocre play (in your eyes) that is actually still in the top one percent in the world.
Hitting a golf ball completely perfectly straight is probably the hardest thing in sports to do. And number two is hitting a baseball with a round bat and a round ball. That is just not something that transfers across all sports.
There are times where I have to catch myself, thinking, breathing too much of this stuff. I’ve got to remember that when I’m at the game, my focus and job should be telling the viewers something they couldn’t possibly know on their own. What they can know, is get on a computer and find the same information I find. So having a balance of trying to not give them that, but using that as a basis so that I can make certain decisions.
I look at my career as an amazing one. I’ve been in every situation imaginable. I’ve been a starter, I’ve pitched Game 7, I’ve been a reliever, I’ve been closing out games. That criteria doesn’t make you a broadcaster. But what helps is if you can understand the timing of broadcasting it gives you the greatest advantage in the world, because you can speak to almost every situation. Whereas, somebody else can only guesstimate what that must be like. That’s what’s changed for me, watching certain games. I use to have like, white noise in my ears when I would be watching the team I want to watch. But now I pay attention to what they’re saying, and their style of how they’re doing. Because, I’m trying to navigate, still, my own laid back, want-to-be-funny/sometimes know-when-to-be-serious [side], and at the same time stay in my lane.
I grew up watching Phil Rizzuto as a kid. He was one of the all-time great homers but also a complete character. You don’t see a lot of that in the game anymore. It’s fun.
I think a big part of that, personality-wise, is that there’s so much criticism and there’s so much written about—some guys are afraid to be themselves, because of how it might be portrayed. I know from a local level, when I did the Braves games, that’s way different than the national level. I told a corny joke every game and people loved it. I could be funny. It was your local team.
A national broadcaster, overall, you obviously have no interest in either team, from who wins and looses. You’re trying to be above what everybody else has been used to, and that is listening to their own broadcasters. Their own broadcasters are not going to say negative things, for the most part, because they are used to their team wanting to win. The broadcasters want their team to win.
At the national level, the biggest criticism that I think we get, and especially poor Joe Buck, is that somehow Joe Buck or John Smoltz is rooting for the Cleveland Indians to beat the Chicago Cubs. And then the other side is saying the same thing, “We’re rooting for the Cubs to beat the Indians.”
So what I learned in a short period of time is that a definition of a really good broadcast is where 50 percent of the people think you’re rooting for the other team.