Lessons from Hall of Famers

I had the very unique opportunity as a teammate of at least 4 current and future Hall of Fame players with the Atlanta Braves.  Being around Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Chipper Jones, Fred McGriff, and others along the way was like taking a 3-year PHD course in what it takes to be one the best in the world at baseball.

Watching these players work was an absolute thrill and a front row seat to learn how greatness is not only developed but also maintained.  Here is a glimpse of a few of the many qualities of greatness that I witness while working alongside these great players.

Every great player is competitive, but Chipper Jones showed a level of competitiveness that was unsurpassed. In Chipper’s mind, he was not going to let the pitcher beat him.  As a young player in the minor leagues, we watched him get more big hits more consistently than any other player.  This continued into the major leagues for 20 years in part due to his exceptional will to win the pitcher-hitter battle every at bat.

Greg Maddux taught all of us that each throw in practice, every pitch in the game, and every hitter’s swing (or non-swing) tells us something.  If we have our mind, eyes and ears open to these signals, we can use this information to our advantage.  He had an incredible ability to be aware of how the ball is coming out of his hand in practice so that he could make his pitches better, or develop another pitch by subtly tweaking his hand or body positioning to make the ball move a different way.  He also was able to react to hitter’s signals so effectively.  He always had a good game plan going into each hitter, but was aware enough to change that plan during an at bat if he saw something in the hitters swing or approach that showed a vulnerability to a certain pitch or location.

Every great player works hard to prepare for success through a process vs. result focus.  Fred McGriff was a great example.  Every spring training, we watched Fred, one of the best power hitters in the game, take the first 2-3 weeks of daily hitting and hit the ball only to the opposite field.  He would take thousands of swings working on staying inside the ball and developing his swing in stages to get it ready for the season.  His process was very evident as we knew that eventually he would “turn his swing on” at some point late in spring training to unleash the power and explosiveness to hit the ball to all fields for power.  He felt that it took his swing a while to be ready to pull the ball, and he took his time through the process to prepare for the season.

There are so many different examples of consistency.  All of these great players came to work every day to find ways to improve. They did not wait around for someone to make them do something or tell them something that could help them.  They had a burning desire to figure it out for themselves, and discuss it with other players and coaches.  Being around them was a constant lesson in the adage that “there is always something to learn”, even if you are the best pitcher or hitter in the world.

Tom Glavine, in his approach to pitching, was a great example of consistency.  His strategy is that he was going to be better at his strengths than the hitter is at theirs.  He was going to be able to locate his pitches on the outside corner, even if the hitter knew it, so that the hitter would eventually swing and get himself out.  Glavine taught us that a little bit of stubbornness and consistency in approach can make you successful in the long run.

Most of every great player’s success is done in the “trenches” where few people are watching and the cameras are not on.  There were many times when John Smoltz would be in the bullpen trying to figure a pitch out or make his slider sharper (or better locate his fastball) until Leo Mazzone, our pitching coach would have to intervene, take the ball away from him and tell him to go away before his head blows up from trying to hard.  And this was the year when he dominated baseball on the mound nearly every start and won the CY Young in 1996.

I had an opportunity to see greatness in action on a daily basis.  What I found is that all of these players had the one trait that keeps them great for so long.  They were never content with their success.  They were never satisfied with being where they were.  There was always something to learn, a way to improve, and another thing to work on.

It was a wonderful experience to watch these players in action on the field in competition, but it was something very special to have the privilege to work alongside these players every day to better understand what makes a great player great.  I learned so much from being around these players.  It has done so much to shape my philosophy as a coach and mentor to young players.  It is also a great reminder that going to work every day, constantly trying to find ways to improve, is a successful approach to just about anything we do in life.

–Brad Woodall