07/15/1996 at 01:00 AM EDT
ON A SWELTERING GEORGIA afternoon, Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz takes the mound in a dusty suburban ball-field about 20 miles from Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. He peers down at the batter, then lobs one across the plate. Chris Shoemake, 15, creams it for a home run. "He took me deep—I don't like it," says Smoltz with mock annoyance to the half-pint wannabes gathered around him at a baseball camp at a Christian school.
"God, that felt good," says an elated Shoemake. "It's always been my dream to get a hit off John Smoltz."
Lately, it's a dream that is shared by many big leaguers as well. After years of ups and downs, Smoltz, 29, is sizzling—winning 14 of his last 17 starts (and earning a spot on the National League roster for Tuesday night's All-Star Game).
The 6'3" pitcher, who has been criticized for not realizing his potential, could be on track to win upwards of 25 games, which no National League pitcher has done since Steve Carlton did it in 1972. "What is potential?" says Smoltz. "It's something no one ever lives up to."
Smoltz can be philosophic, now. But for years he was burdened by other people's expectations. "People said I had the best stuff," he says. "I was going to win the Cy Young Award. But the results were falling short of what I thought I was capable of doing. I didn't handle it very well. I internalized everything. I just lost a ton of confidence in myself."
Smoltz began his turnaround in 1995 following surgery to remove a painful bone spur and bone chips from his right elbow. He renewed his inner self as well when he and Dyan, 30, his wife of five years, began attending Bible-study groups. "People want to know about this magical transformation," says Smoltz. "I attribute it to maturity, but also to an increase in faith. I used to worry about what people thought. Now I'm not letting people change my focus."
As a kid growing up outside Detroit, Smoltz was supposed to focus on the accordion. The oldest of three children of John Sr., 53, the owner of an electronics shop, and Mary, 50, a homemaker, Smoltz learned to play the instrument at age 4 and became a prodigy, winning contests as far away as Chicago. Then he discovered baseball. "From 7 years old I said I was going to be a major leaguer," says Smoltz. "My mom said, 'That's great, but you need something to fall back on.' I told her, 'A gas station attendant looks pretty fun.' She said, 'Well, don't tell your dad.' "
Smoltz decided to forgo the safety net. At 16, after serving up three home runs in a national amateur tournament, he taped a strike zone on the back of the family house in Lansing, Mich. "He spent hours playing by himself, throwing pitches," says his mother. Indeed, admits Smoltz, "I never had any other interests." As a high school senior, he even skipped the homecoming dance in order to see the Tigers in the World Series. Says Smoltz: "That was the place I wanted to be."
In 1986 he was drafted by the Tigers but was traded a year later to the Atlanta Braves. Smoltz, playing Triple A ball in Richmond, Va., first met Dyan Strubel of Atlanta over the telephone in 1988, taking a message for a roommate. Later that year they became friends when John was called up to the Braves. For two years they hung out together. "I was pretty standoffish," he says. "I was like a raccoon ready to jump if she cornered me." Eventually, a romance blossomed.
As his life off-field stabilized—the couple married in 1990 and now live with their two kids, Andrew, 4, and Rachel, 2, in a five-bedroom house in Duluth, Ga.—Smoltz was just boarding his roller coaster of a career. "I went 11-6 and made the All-Star game in the first half of 1989," says Smoltz. "People started talking about 20 wins. But the second half was a total flop." The next year was not much better, and in 1991, "I started off 2-11," he says. "I was like, 'God, this is not the way it's supposed to be!' " Booed for the first time ever, Smoltz turned to sports psychologist Jack Llewellyn. "We tried to teach him how to recover faster from adversity," says Llewellyn, "and how to tell when he was losing his focus and how to get it back."
His career continued as a series of "peaks and valleys," says Smoltz, until this season, when he leveled off on a very high plane. "He's at peace with himself now," says Dyan. "He doesn't let what happened at the game spill over to his home life."
It's a perspective he tries to instill in the young players at the baseball camp. "Remember," he says as he demonstrates the mechanics of the pitching motion to a pack of awestruck kids, "you've got to step back if you want to move forward."
CINDY DAMPIER and MARISA SALCINES in Atlanta