In 1996, the Braves tried to turn the world's best javelin thrower into a pitcher

February 20th, 2024
Design by Ben Marra.

You can forgive the Braves for thinking they could turn just about anyone into a frontline ace back in the '90s. After all, in addition to the Hall of Fame trio of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, the team also saw starters like Kevin Millwood, Steve Avery and Denny Neagle help them win the division every year from 1991-2005, save for the 1994 strike-shortened campaign.

So, it makes perfect sense that the Braves turned to a completely different type of prospect in the middle of their run: a gold medal-winning javelin thrower.

In 1996, 30-year-old Czech Republic Olympian Jan Železný was in Atlanta for the Summer Olympics. Considered perhaps the greatest javelin thrower in history, Železný collected his second gold that summer and still holds the all-time record with a 98.48-meter toss.

"Železný had made a comment to [legendary Czech baseball figure and then-coach for the Prague Eagles Jan] Bagin that when they went to the Olympics, he'd stay around -- he wanted to work out with the Braves," former Braves international scout Bill Clark told "We sent him a book on how to pitch and we sent him a dozen baseballs from Atlanta. I don't think he ever read the book."

With that kind of arm strength, it makes sense that the Braves might want to roll the dice and see if he could change sports. Deion Sanders was still playing in the Majors and playing pro football -- though he took '96 off from the diamond -- so who knew what other two-sport starts were just waiting to be discovered. So, with help from Clark -- who was instrumental in the signings of Andruw Jones, Rafael Furcal and others -- and with pitching coach Leo Mazzone on hand to provide instruction -- Železný appeared at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium dressed in a T-shirt and track pants. He was as ready as ever to make the first pitches of his life.

"I had two workouts in Prague in Krč [known as Eagles Stadium now]. They showed me how to hold a baseball," Železný said in an email. "I didn’t care much because I was preparing myself for the Olympic Games at that time."

While the basic mechanics of the two throws are similar -- Clark likens the javelin toss to a three-quarters or over-the-top release for a pitcher -- there is one very crucial element that is different: Železný notes that in baseball you throw down from the mound, while in his track and field sport, he throws the javelin up. It may explain why The New York Times opened its story on one of Železný's wild pitches.

''Hot cheese!'' Mazzone yelled as the ball flew over the backstop.

"When his left foot went down, he was trying to recoil and the first pitch he threw went between Greg Maddux and [then-Braves GM] John Schuerholz. He scared them both to death," Clark said, gleefully cackling over the phone.

(While Mazzone was able to see Železný try out for the Braves, he wasn't able to catch him in the Olympics because the Braves were out of town for the duration of the event.)

"We left for a road trip for three weeks, or I don't know how long it was, but it was the longest road trip in the history of baseball," Mazzone joked. "We were going to dry cleaners on the road, because we could only pack so many sport coats and ties.")

The team wasn't too concerned with the track and field star's control, nor were they looking for pure velocity. They knew from the Olympic Games that he had the raw arm strength. Instead, the Braves' staff wanted to see if Železný could pick up the natural flow of pitching mechanics.

"I couldn't hit the strike zone and I was tired," Železný wrote. "They didn’t want me to throw fast, they knew I could do that, but they wanted to see how quickly I could learn the right technique. I got a lot of advice, but the next days, I was pretty [tired]. I flew to Prague and the next day to Monaco for my races and the results were really bad because I was so tired. It was a load, not on my back like with the javelin, but on my arm."

''The arm strength that we anticipated was there,'' Paul Snyder, the Braves' director of scouting and player development, said at the time. ''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.''

Things may have been different had Železný grown up with baseball. He had the raw natural ability -- the fact that he still holds the world record in javelin nearly 30 years later is a testament to that. But it's far more difficult to simply pick up a brand-new sport at 30 years old than anyone might want to admit.

"He was throwing about 85-86 miles per hour," Clark said. "... [I]t was obvious that if we had him at 16, he probably would have been a Hall of Fame pitcher. And he may have been a Hall of Fame outfielder because this guy was like 175 pounds. He was very, very athletic."

According to Clark, Železný then had one more wish before wrapping up his tryout: He wanted to hurl a ball out of Fulton County Stadium.

"I said, 'OK, crank it up,'" Clark remembered. "And he threw from first base now all the way up to the upper deck in left field in the old stadium we had down there at that time."

There was one problem though:

"I picked up Track and Field News a month later and I find out Železný was now sidelined because he sprained his arm throwing in the workout for the Braves. Well, he strained his arm trying to throw the ball out of the damn stadium!"

Photo of Jan Železný before EuroBaseball 2023. (Courtesy Czech Baseball Association)

Though Železný never ended up changing sports, he still paid homage to his brief time on the baseball field by becoming an ambassador for last fall's European Baseball Championship hosted by the Czech Republic.

"Baseball is a minor sport in our country, but our guys play it really well," Železný wrote. "Baseball will probably never be on the same level in Czechia as in the USA, but if we have and can play tournaments like [the World Baseball Classic], it helps the popularity of the sport a lot. The performance of the Czech national team at the WBC was a huge success, and I hope they will also be successful at the European Championship and many people will come to watch them."

While the Czech Republic may not have been able to medal at the Euros, Železný was right about the fan response: The country smashed all previous European baseball records with more than 23,000 fans coming out to the event.

Special thanks to Lukáš Ercoli of the Czech Baseball Association for translation and interview assistance.