Atlanta’s most unique Hall of Famer, full of competitive fire and personality, fooled hitters as starter and closer
John Smoltz walked with a spring in his step, donning a stylish blue suit as he stepped to the podium in front of thousands of adoring baseball fans in Cooperstown, New York. It was a warm day that July 26, 2015, and the crowd gathered for a usually dignified, emotional afternoon to honor his life’s work and his induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
So, naturally, Smoltz put on a long, stringy, brown wig that made him look like a cross between a 1970s Peter Frampton and Shaggy from Scooby Doo.
With a gleam in his eye and a smile on his face, Smoltz addressed his former teammates on the greatest Atlanta Braves pitching rotation ever assembled, fellow Hall of Famers Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux.
“Glav, Maddux,” the follically challenged Smoltz began, “back when I had hair we had the time of our lives.”
It was pure Smoltz — prankster, competitor and unique personality — who will live forever in Atlanta Braves lore. Smoltz rode a devastating slider and top-shelf fastball en route to 213 career wins, 3,084 strikeouts and 154 saves during a 21-year career that included four seasons as Atlanta’s bullpen closer.
“Great stuff, classic delivery, great athlete,” is how then-Atlanta pitching coach Leo Mazzone described it in Tales From the Braves Mound.
Smoltz also pitched perhaps the most famous game in Braves history — which ironically was a loss. Smoltz dueled Minnesota’s Jack Morris in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, which resulted in 1-0 Twins victory. Smoltz, then 24, pitched into the eighth inning and didn’t allow a run. But Morris, 12 years his senior, pitched all 10 innings for the shutout.
“John started his reputation in the postseason right then and there,” Mazzone writes. “He pitched a great ballgame. It was 0-0 at the end of nine.”
On July 23, 1988, Smoltz, a Michigan native, was called up for his Major League debut and immediately entered the starting rotation. Drafted in the 22nd round in 1985 by the Tigers, he’d been traded in 1987 to the Braves organization for veteran pitcher Doyle Alexander.
Glavine was in his second Braves season in 1988 and says he was an instant admirer.
“Pete (Smith) and I were just in awe of Smoltzie’s stuff,” Glavine writes in None but the Braves. “He threw in the 90s with great movement. Even though he struggled with a 2-7 record and a 5.46 ERA that year, you just had a feeling he was going to be a fixture around here for a long time.”
Was he ever.
Though Smoltz, an eight-time All-Star, was a part of Atlanta’s 1995 World Series champion squad, his best season ever came the following year. In 1996, Smoltz finished with a career-best 24-8 record and career-best 276 strikeouts while winning his lone Cy Young Award.
Late Braves broadcaster Pete Van Wieren wrote in his autobiography Of Mikes and Men, that the team’s 1993 starting rotation of Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz and Steve Avery was “one of the best starting rotations in baseball history. The most common comparison to these four is the 1954 Cleveland Indians quartet of Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, Early Wynn and Mike Garcia.”
The Braves pitchers had fun doing it, too. Smoltz, Maddux and Glavine were well known for their trips to the golf course for competitive matches and friendly wagers on days when they weren’t pitching. Braves manager Bobby Cox said he encouraged them to do it, despite the injury risks, in order to relieve the stress of the daily grind. Insults, laughs and boyish pranks were all part of the deal.
And the Big Three — as Smoltz, Maddux and Glavine were known — also burst into the pop culture scene in the mid-1990s as well, when NIKE featured them in one of its most memorable ad campaigns, “Chicks Dig the Long Ball,” that blared across America’s airwaves.
After undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in March 2000 and missing that season, Smoltz returned later in the 2001 campaign as a relief pitcher, in part to help his recovery. In typical Smoltz fashion, he recorded a league-leading 55 saves in 2002, his first full season as a closer. He remained in the bullpen until returning to start again in 2005.
Just think, all this could have been missed. During his Hall of Fame induction speech, Smoltz thanked his parents, who were accordion teachers, for helping him get to this point in life. He acknowledged that they didn’t know much about sports or baseball.
“You started me on my quest to be the next Lawrence Welk at age four,” Smoltz told them that day. “I played (accordion) till the age seven and then I hit you with the ultimate whopper of all whoppers — I said I know what I’m going to be in life and I’m going to be a Major League Baseball player.”
He spent 20 seasons in Atlanta, then one final year in 2009 with Boston and St. Louis. Today, you’ll see Smoltz often on Fox Sports as its lead color analyst on national baseball broadcasts.
There you’ll still hear his corny jokes, of course. Smoltzie is going to be Smoltzie. But he’s also driven to be the most insightful analyst in the game.
“Once I found out I was getting into this industry and TBS gave me a chance (to get started) I wanted to (broadcast) the World Series,” Smoltz, still the competitor, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. … “I told my agent, `If I’m going to get into this, I’m only getting in this to try to get to the top.’ ”
Shocker. He did just that. Typical Smoltz. H&A