ALPHARETTA - John Smoltz sat at a picnic table, his right arm cocooned in plastic wrap with a bag of ice soothing his still-recovering shoulder after a surgery that he hopes will extend an already storied pitching career. And yet he hardly seemed to notice -- until the subject of pitching came up.
But it wasn't the thought of missing out on the Atlanta Braves' season that bothered him on Thursday. It was something far more important -- at least this week.
"Usually every kid here gets a chance to hit off me, if I'm healthy enough," said Smoltz, watching the hundreds of kids playing on the baseball diamonds surrounding him at the 15th annual John Smoltz Baseball Camp. "I've had to take on more of a talking role this year."
The glum moment passed quickly, however, as Smoltz expounded on what he hopes his camp means to the 300 or so kids that descended on Wills Park, Alpharetta for four days -- campers who came from around the southeast and as far away as Oregon, Colorado and New York.
For though getting a chance to hit off "Smoltzie" may make a memory to last a lifetime, Smoltz -- along with camp director Richie Hughes -- hopes his camp enforces habits that make that lifetime much more worthwhile.
"The part that excites me is getting to be around the kids for four days and try and add value, give experience to them," Smoltz said -- and he wasn't just referring to baseball.
Over the four days, Smoltz, along with all the coaches at the camp -- which included a number of Hall County baseball personnel -- emphasize the need for kids to get put down the video game controller and step outside to play.
"Kids have so many more choices today, between computers and video games and cell phones," Smoltz said. "The whole world is about direct connect, but there's more disconnect now.
"If you took a bunch of kids and dropped them in a field today and told them to go play, a lot of them wouldn't know what to do. And that's not healthy."
"There's a reason why America has a child obesity problem," added Hughes, a former Lakeview Academy athletics director and basketball coach who now runs camps such as these throughout the state.
What was healthy was the amount of time Smoltz spent talking and interacting with campers.
"There was a total of 24 hours in the camp over four days, and John was there for 20-21 of those hours," camp coach Jimmy Lawler said. "And he was active when he was there, talking with the kids, getting involved. He gave every kid there tips on pitching."
Lawler, the head baseball coach at Flowery Branch High, is in charge of hiring coaches for the camp and is a big reason why Hall County has become so involved, sending 16 coaches of the 23 who attended.
"I got to start doing these camps because of knowing Richie [Hughes]," said Lawler, in his sixth year with the camp.
Hughes' relationships within the sports community have helped sprout numerous all-star camps -- including the Justin Griffith Football Camp, which will commence its third session next week at Riverside Military Academy in Gainesville. Hughes says he is glad to help area professional athletes spread their uplifting messages to young athletes.
"These camps mean a lot more than just baseball or football to the kids involved," Hughes said. "This [John Smoltz] camp, for instance, has probably helped about 3-4,000 kids in the 15 years we've been running it."
Kids who attend the camp get more than just fun and life lessons, however, they also walk away with souvenirs and autographs -