Smoltz showed incomparable toughness

sports@macon.comFebruary 22, 2012 

This weekend, John Smoltz will enter the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame. It probably won’t be the last time he’ll have Hall of Famer beside his name.

Smoltz pitched in arguably one of the biggest games in the history of sports in this state. It was Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. You probably don’t need me to remind you what happened in the game. The end result wasn’t what we had hoped for, but it wasn’t because Smoltz didn’t pitch his heart out.

He was only 24 years old that year. It had been an up-and-down season. Smoltz had gone 2-11 in the first half of the season. He was so bad there were even rumors the Braves were looking to trade him. But some pep talks with the team psychiatrist turned his season, and perhaps his career, around.

Smoltz went 12-2 in the second half and helped the Braves get to the playoffs for the first time in nine years. And there was no doubt who needed to be on the mound in the biggest situation in baseball -- Game 7 of a World Series.

We might remember the bad things from that game -- Lonnie Smith getting faked out at second base and not scoring from first base on a double and Sid Bream hitting into a double play with the bases loaded late in the game -- but Smoltz’s performance was legendary. He pitched 7-1/3 scoreless innings and recently admitted on MLB Network he still can’t believe manager Bobby Cox took him out in a scoreless game.

That performance would be a signal for all Braves fans exactly what type of pitcher we’d see for the next 17 years. Smoltz formed an historic trio with Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux. The other two clearly had their moments of glory and dominance, but Smoltz was the tough pitcher you usually wanted on the mound in a big situation.

Unlike the other two, Smoltz battled arm injuries throughout his career. It’s not a surprise, since out of the three, he was the one who threw hard. Pitchers who throw hard usually have arm issues at some point, and Smoltz had his share.

But you knew that Smoltz did whatever he had to do to put on that Braves uniform. Not since Phil Niekro have we had someone who appreciated wearing that Atlanta uniform with such honor. Perhaps it was just his undeniable love for his manager, but there was never any doubt that Smoltz loved being a Braves player.

Like Glavine and Maddux, he went on to pitch for other teams. That’s baseball. But there was never any doubt where his heart was. Glavine left a decade ago to pitch for the rival New York Mets, so even though Glavine had really been the player who epitomized the turn in Atlanta’s fortunes, Smoltz became the clear fan favorite once Glavine left for New York.

And as Smoltz got older, he fought age with every ounce of his energy. He had procedures. He changed his delivery. He did everything possible to keep playing, even though we knew when he would take those long walks around the mound and take deep breaths that he was dying of pain.

That was the toughness that only Smoltz had.

When Smoltz is inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame this weekend in Macon, he’ll take his place as one of the best pitchers to ever entertain us in this state. And we can only hope that if and when the Braves have someone else step on a mound in a Game 7 of another World Series, the pitcher will have half of the toughness Smoltz did back in 1991.

Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at www.foxsports1670.com.

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