To think that John Smoltz will be the third Atlanta Braves pitcher in two years to enter the Baseball Hall of Fame is almost mindboggling. This was once an organization known for hitters only, with the only viable starter being Phil Niekro.
It was all about hitters back in the day. In the Braves’ early days in Atlanta, it was Hank Aaron, Rico Carty and Joe Torre. Then a decade later, it was all about Dale Murphy and Bob Horner. But the concept of filling the Braves’ roster with home run hitters was abandoned when it didn’t produce a championship.
Smoltz was part of the restructuring of Braves baseball, when then-general manager Bobby Cox decided pitching was the way to go. He drafted pitchers. He traded for pitchers in almost every deal. When Smoltz came over from the Detroit Tigers in a trade and joined Tom Glavine, the groundwork was set in place for 15 years of great success.
It’s kind of what the Braves are trying to do right now.
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It’s a shame Smoltz will be remembered for a game the Braves lost, and that’s not something he’s likely proud of. But can you think of Smoltz without the performance in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, when he battled his childhood hero Jack Morris? It was a remarkable game. The only negative was that Atlanta lost.
But it was one heck of an outing. He was just a kid then, just 24 years old. But Smoltz pitched his heart out. He did everything he could to get the Braves a championship, but the Minnesota Twins were just a bit better on that Sunday night.
We know all about Smoltz, the competitor he was on the mound. No one wanted to win more. Sure, Glavine was on the mound the Saturday night the Braves won it all in 1995. But Smoltz probably would have done OK if it had been his turn.
The fact Smoltz got hurt and then came back as a closer and became the best in the game is a big reason he’s going into the Hall of Fame on Sunday. He might have been OK if he had remained a starter, and he might have had enough wins to still make a case for Cooperstown. But the fact Smoltz was that dominant in the closer’s role after major elbow injury and then went back into the rotation a few years later made his resume perfect.
And when he makes his speech Sunday, appreciate the physical pain Smoltz went through to stay on the mound. He threw hard, and hard throwers get hurt. Glavine and Greg Maddux were finesse pitchers. They never threw hard and were hardly ever hurt. Smoltz struggled more times than we would probably like to know at staying healthy.
Who can forget those times when he would walk around the mound in pain, urging himself to make it through the next batter? Or how about those times he would drop down and throw sidearm? You had to know he was hurting, but he never wanted to come out of a ballgame.
Glavine might have been the heart of the Braves for all those great years, but Smoltz had the soul. He was the leader. It helped that Glavine left for the money and the New York Mets, leaving Smoltz behind. And even though the Braves gave up on him and Smoltz pitched 15 more games in 2009 between the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals, he was all about wearing that Tomahawk.
Niekro is not the only Atlanta Braves pitcher in Cooperstown anymore. Now there are four. Who knows if there will ever be another one, but regardless, there will likely never be another one like Smoltz.
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. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.