Javelin Thrower Shows Braves His Stuff
By JERRY SCHWARTZ
Published: August 8, 1996
Jan Zelezny gave a mighty heave and threw the baseball, the first he had ever gripped, over the backstop and into the tarpaulin rolled up beside the infield at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
''Hot cheese!'' shouted the Atlanta Braves' pitching coach, Leo Mazzone, in a kind of baseball equivalent to golf's ''Fore!'' as members of the Braves' grounds crew scattered.
Zelezny's errant throw had less disastrous consequences than if he had been throwing his favorite object. The 29-year-old Czech had, only four days earlier, won his second Olympic gold medal in the javelin -- the first man to win consecutive gold medals in javelin since 1924.
''We were not disappointed at all in what we saw today,'' said Paul Snyder, the Braves' director of scouting and player development. Snyder said Zelezny would be invited to spring training and, if he continues to test out well, offered a minor league contract.
''The arm strength that we anticipated was there,'' Snyder said. ''The athleticism we anticipated was there. And we're not disappointed one iota. It will take a prolonged process of dedication -- the same dedication Jan has had to the javelin -- to become a major league pitcher. But I was quite surprised how quickly he adapted and picked things up from Leo.''
Bill Clark, who scouts international players for the Braves, first learned of Zelezny from the managers of a baseball team in Prague. Clark said he watched Zelezny at a track meet and then called Snyder. ''I told Paul, 'I don't know whether this guy can throw 70 miles an hour or 110 miles an hour, but he can sure throw the javelin,' '' Clark said.
Since then, Braves scouts had seen Zelezny's arm strength in his winning javelin throw of 289 feet 3 inches and they had heard the reports that he has thrown a softball more than 400 feet.
But Zelezny, whose form was hardly classic, admitted after his 15-minute tryout that he has never thrown a baseball, except to toss one to his 8-year-old son. Mazzone had to show him how to grip it and then explained, with the help of an interpreter, the pitching mound and the rubber.
''It's not about muscle. It's about rhythm,'' Mazzone explained, as he lifted Zelezny's right arm to the correct position at the top of a pitching motion.
''Tell him he can lift his front leg up a little higher,'' Mazzone said to the interpreter. ''He's got to follow through or he'll hurt himself.'' Two more of Zelezny's throws sailed over the backstop, but several smacked hard into the glove of the Braves' bullpen coach, Ned Yost.
Snyder estimated later that Zelezny was throwing 80 to 85 miles an hour, and Zelezny estimated his effort at about 70 percent.
At the end of his brief workout, Mazzone challenged him to see how far he could throw a baseball using his javelin motion. Zelezny ran up to the first base foul line and whistled a rainbow throw over the center field fence.
Zelezny said he has seen baseball on television and watched his first major league game Tuesday as the Braves beat the Phillies, 10-4 -- their first game back from their 17-game Olympic road trip.
''That was the first baseball game I have seen in person, and it was the first time I've thrown a baseball,'' Zelezny said. ''But in training, I throw different balls, not just the javelin.''
Although he will complete the current track and field season in Europe, Zelezny said he has no more worlds to conquer in the javelin. ''I am twice the Olympic gold medalist, twice world champion, and I have set five world records in the javelin,'' he said. ''If I can be successful in baseball, I would like to do it. I am looking for something new to do in my life.''
Photo: The javelin gold medalist, Jan Zelezny, showing his pitching form as the Braves coach Leo Mazzone watches. (Photographs by The Associated Press)