It wasn't a popular move that brought John Smoltz from Detroit to Atlanta.
The headline in the Aug. 13, 1987, Atlanta Journal thundered "Braves rebuild, trade Alexander for minor leaguer."
Doyle Alexander was an accomplished pitcher who was filling in innings until free agency. Smoltz, a 22nd-round pick by Detroit, was a slinger known for throwing hard but not always accurately.
Braves scout John Hagemann only watched Smoltz pitch 2 2/3 innings before recommending the prospect to then-general manager Bobby Cox. "You got to see a little bit more than stats. You have to have a little projection," Hagemann said.
"You didn’t have to be a genius. (Anybody) would have said, 'Wow, this kid has got some arm.' "
Nearly 28 years later, Hagemann's projection is entering Baseball's Hall of Fame. Before his July 26 induction, some of those who competed with and against Smoltz share their favorite memories. (Scroll through or select the chapter tabs.)
Fellow Hall of Famer, Braves teammate from 1993-2003
John Smoltz and Greg Maddux were teammates on the Braves team for a decade. (Ben Gray / AJC File)
On any given night, you wouldn’t be surprised if he threw a no-hitter. His stuff was that good. He easily had the best slider in baseball. It was hard to pick up out of his hand and there was no hump in it. It broke a lot and it broke late. And every time he toed the mound, there was a chance for a no-hitter, there was a chance for a 10-or-more strikeout night.
He had better stuff (than Tom Glavine and me). He had a better fastball. He had a better slider. His changeup and forkball were comparable. There wasn’t a pitch he couldn’t throw. I mean, he threw a knuckleball for a while. He threw a straight change. He threw a split. He threw a slider, curve, he could sink it, he had a good four-seamer. It’s like he had every pitch that was invented. They were all above-average major league pitches.
I remember going into Florida when (the Marlins) first came into the league. They had a pingpong table in the clubhouse. We were like, “Ah, cool, pingpong table.” Everybody was excited. And Smoltzie goes, “OK, you guys figure out who the best player is and I’ll play him on Sunday on getaway day.” We spent the first two days trying to figure out who the best player was that was going to have the privilege to play Smoltzie. David Justice proved he was the best on the team and got a chance to play Smoltzie on Sunday. Sure enough, Smoltzie walked in and had on his getaway clothes and he spanked Justice with his slacks on and his dress shoes. In 10 minutes, the game was over.
He always included everybody in whatever he was doing, whether it was golf or a Final Four pool or whatever. He was in charge of the fun of the team. He was like Team Fun Guy. He supported everybody and everybody seemed to get along with him. He was just a solid teammate.
Even though he didn’t win, that Game 7 against Jack Morris (in the 1991 World Series) was when I first took notice. It just seemed like a lot of guys tried to turn it up a notch in the postseason and Smoltzie actually did it. (Steve) Avery could do it and Smoltzie could do it. Everybody else tried to do it and couldn’t do it.
One of the most impressive things I’ve seen him do was we go to Pine Valley (Golf Club) one year and it’s hot. It’s like one of those 90-degree days with 100 percent humidity. And Pine Valley has a hole there, the 15th, it’s a par-5. He reaches this hole in two and the caddie says something like, “You’re only the eighth person to reach this green in two since 1975,” since he’s been a caddie there. He ends up two-putting, makes birdie and ends up shooting 69 at Pine Valley, which is a very difficult course.
We get to the park in Philadelphia. We’re exhausted. It was hot-as-hell all day. And we go through our workout, we go through BP and Smoltzie said, “Hey man, I’m really tired, I think I need a nap. Wake me up in the fifth.” So I go, “OK, I gotcha.” The fifth inning rolls around and I’m like “Man, I better go wake up Smoltzie.” He’s over there laying on the floor with towels around him, taking a nap. He gets up, he stretches, puts his uniform on, rides the bike for a little bit, drinks a Mountain Dew — because he’s Smoltzie. And comes into game in the ninth. We’re winning by one and he’s facing their 3-4-5 hitters, it’s (Bobby) Abreu, (Pat) Burrell and Scott Rolen. He has a pretty easy 1- 2-3 inning, punches out two.
We’re sitting there on the bus after the game and I’m like, “Hey, pretty impressive day: 69 at Pine Valley, you dominate their three best hitters.” I’m dead tired. It was a long day. He looked at me and he goes, “Hey, we got Merion (Golf Club) tomorrow at 6:30 a.m. in the lobby.” That was the most incredible day I’ve ever seen a pitcher have.
Fellow Hall of Famer, teammate with Braves from 1988-2002 and 2008
Tom Glavine and John Smoltz constantly talked about improving their game. (Vino Wong / AJC File)
I think had Smoltzie stayed healthy, he’s certainly a guy that would have been capable of winning 300 games. Unfortunately health was an issue for him. He had to adapt his role to suit his health and just happened to be about as good as you could be at either one.
He had electric stuff. He was that guy that, out of the three of us, you would look at and think he had a legitimate chance on any given night of throwing a no-hitter. He could dominate you and strike out 15, 16 guys and just overpower you. I think, definitely more so than me and probably more so than Greg (Maddux), he had a fearlessness about him, maybe sometimes to his detriment but certainly more often to his credit.
I don’t think there was anything that John didn’t think he could do. That was a part of the beauty of him. I do what I do and I got what I got and I’m going to go out there and I’m going to dominate you and I’m going to beat you. I think we all try to have that when you walk out on the mound, but particularly for John in the postseason, it went to another level. He was certainly at his best in the postseason or in big game-type situations.
Greg and I were probably a little bit more calculating in our decisions. We’re a little bit more, “OK, my chances of doing this are X, but my chances of doing Y are much better.” And you would tend to side on giving yourself the most room for error. Whereas John might be looking at a situation and think, “Man, my chances of throwing this pitch right here are 1 in 10. Screw it, I’m throwing that pitch. I think I can pull it off.”
He was the same way on the golf course. He could have the worst round going, shoot a 45, and then stand on the 10th tee and say, “I’m going to shoot 2-under on the back nine.” You’re thinking, “There’s no way in hell you’re going to do that.” And then he goes out and does it.
The three of us got along so well despite our differences in our personalities. And we were vastly different on the mound. What we were individually emotionally on the mound worked for us. I could no more go out there and try to do what John did than John could go out there and try to do what I did. In fact, John tried to go out there and do what Greg and I did and got his (rear end) handed to him.
We had gone to play golf and were having a conversation on the way back. Smoltzie said, “You go out there and don’t even crack a sweat. It looks like you’re playing catch, it’s so easy.” Greg and I laughed and said to John, “Just because it looks that way doesn’t mean I’m giving it any less effort than you do. My 95 or 100 percent effort looks different than yours does. Trust me, I’m trying my butt off and I’m working hard.” He tried to go out there and go with what he thought was 90 percent effort, what he thought was nice and easy and he got his (rear end) handed to him. I think from that point on, he had a better appreciation for how Greg and I went about our business.
If there were two things I wish I had in my career, it would have been his slider and Greg’s cutter. Trust me, I picked their brain and asked how you do this and I couldn’t do it. That’s the beauty of our game. It’s not that easy. We’re all blessed with something that we’re good at and that we can do well and we all had our thing. I think Smoltz would be the first to tell you that if there was a pitch he wish he could have had throughout the course of his career, it would have been a changeup. I think that was the one pitch that he struggled with.
He’s one of those guys that I could go a year without talking to him and if I were in a room with him right now, it’d be like I just saw him yesterday. And you know you’re going to walk away laughing.
Pitching coach in Triple-A Richmond in 1987-1988, and with the Braves from 1990-2005
They had just made a trade for Doyle Alexander and Bobby Cox told me to take John down on the backfield and work with him in instructional league. John threw very hard, but he had control problems and needed another pitch, like a breaking ball. So we started working down on the backfield. Just Smoltz, the catcher and me.
After a few pitches, he said, “That’s not right, that’s not right.” I said, “Wait a minute. I haven’t said anything yet.” After five minutes of the back of the forth, I said, “Would you do me one favor? Would you wind up and throw the ball the way you want to? Don’t even think about mechanics.”
He wound up and threw the ball the way he wanted to and it was the most beautiful delivery I’d ever seen. I said, “That’s perfectly fine.” He said, “What do you mean, that’s perfectly fine?” I said, “There’s nothing wrong with it. That’s a beautiful, well-timed, well-coordinated delivery.”
So here comes the fastball command. Then I gave him Johnny Sain’s theories on breaking balls and he picked that thing up in no time. So now in a short period of time, he’s commanding a fastball and he has one of the best breaking balls I’ve ever seen from a right-handed pitcher and he’s starting to get people out.
(Then-general manager) Bobby (Cox) calls me and says, “How’s Smoltzie doing?” I said, “Above-average fastball, above-average breaking ball and he’s throwing it over the plate.” He goes, “Ah, come on, he can’t be that good that quick.” I said “Come on down and watch.”
He came and watched Smoltzie dominate one of those teams in the Instructional League. Bobby said, “What did you do?” I said, “I let him be himself.” When (Tigers manager) Sparky Anderson saw me in Lakeland (Fla.) over the next couple spring trainings, he asked, “What the hell did you do with Smoltz? How did you get him figured out? We could never do it.” I said, “I just let him be himself.”
I think the No. 1 reason why John Smoltz is going to the Hall of Fame is because is because Bobby Cox did not take him out of starting rotation after going 2-11 in the first half in 1991. And the rest became history. When we were having meetings about it, some guys wanted him to go to the bullpen. I said that’s the best 2-11 I’ve ever seen. Sometimes you might hang a breaking ball at an inopportune time or somebody bloops one in or somebody makes an error, little things that add up and you learn to pitch through that sort of thing.
He sure did learn in the second half but only because Bobby gave him the opportunity to stay in the rotation and John took care of the rest of it. He finally made up his mind that he was going to be aggressive. I guess he got tired of hearing, “You have above-average stuff, but you don’t win.” If this manager believes in me that much, I’m going to pitch well to back him up.
(Steve) Avery used to say, “You like Smoltzie better than me.” I said, “No, I like all you guys.” “Bull,” they’d say. Finally, at the Hall of Fame last year, I said, “I’ll be honest with you. Smoltzie was my favorite. We were together longer than most marriages.” We grew up together in Richmond. He was my first get-the-guy-(to the majors), then it snowballed from there.
One of his greatest accomplishments was the year when he dropped down to (deliver) three-quarters in ‘99 … He’s warming up during our practice session and said, “Leo my elbow is killing me, but watch this. If I drop down to low three-quarter, my elbow don’t hurt.” I said, “Well, drop down to three-quarter.” He had two practice sessions and his next start was against Houston and the “Killer B’s.” He dominated the game. That was the most amazing adjustment I’ve ever seen from two practice sessions. He pitched from three-quarter the rest of that year and was very effective.
Now, he’s starting the fourth game of World Series in Yankee Stadium. He’s warming up and he looks at me and I looked at him and I said, “You’re going to go over the top, ain’t ya?” He said, “Yep.” I said, “You need your split against these guys don’t you?” He said, “Yep.” You can’t throw a split from low three-quarter and he needed his split against the Yankees. In seven innings, he struck out 10, with no practice sessions over the top. How many pitchers would have the courage to do it in a pennant race? That’s all part of his Hall of Fame resume.
He threw a knuckleball against the Yankees one time in interleague play and Bobby said, “What the hell was that?” I said “A knuckleball.” He goes, “When did he start throwing that?” I said, “I don’t know. Today I guess.” All the guys got a kick out of it, didn’t think he’d have the guts to throw one in a game.
One time when Smoltzie became a closer, we were playing Houston and Smoltzie was pitching against (Craig) Biggio and (Jeff) Bagwell is on deck. Smoltzie threw a pitch that was just absolutely devastating and Bagwell caught my eye and he mouthed, “Wow.” The next day, I said “Jeff, what are you going ‘Wow’ for last night? You’ve seen Smoltzie before.” He goes, “Leo, when he’s starting, you’re going to get four at-bats, you think hopefully you can get him one time. But when you only have one shot at it, you have no chance.”
Throughout his career with the Braves, Leo Mazzone was there to give Smoltz advice. (Tannen Maury / Associated Press)
Former Braves scout who recommended the Braves trade for Tigers minor leaguer John Smoltz in 1987. Hagemann now scouts for the Phillies.
I was up in Glens Falls, New York. Detroit had a team there in the Eastern League. (Then-general manager) Bobby (Cox) called me and said, “John, Detroit is looking for a little more pitching,” because it looked like they could possibly get into the playoffs or the World Series. “They have a couple kids up there that they’ve recommended that they would let us have if we sent them Doyle Alexander. Here are the names. Stick around and let me know.”
Most of the scouts had left to go see somebody in Syracuse, but I stayed in Glens Falls. One night late in the game, they were losing and they brought in Smoltz. He was only 20 at the time. I saw him and said, “Geez, this kid has got a good arm.” I looked at the kids that Bobby gave me, too.
I called Bobby that night and I said, “Bobby, I wouldn’t take any of those guys, but I would take Smoltz.” He asked me “Well, who the heck is Smoltz?” I said, “He’s a young kid on the team here. They’re using him sparingly and they use him late in games. But I spoke to the pitching coach after the game and he told me he’ll throw at least an inning tomorrow night.”
So I stayed for the next night. And then I told Cox, I said, “If you can get this guy, forget about the other guys, just get this guy.” He said, “Are you sure?” I said, “Yeah.”
Before perfecting his craft in Atlanta, Smoltz sharpened his delivery in Triple-A Richmond. (Tim Wright / AJC File)
He called me back at 12:30, 1 o’clock in the morning back at the hotel and he said, “John, they’ll give us Smoltz for Alexander.” And I said “Well, if I were making the call, that’s what I would do.” And that’s what he did. Then it became history after that.
I watched him a total of about 2 2/3 innings but listen, you didn’t have to be a genius. (Anybody) would have said, “Wow, this kid has got some arm.” When you’re watching what you feel is a prospect, a major thing you’re looking for is if the ball comes out real easy. It’s 47 years now that I’ve been doing this and stat sheets mean very little to me. I know we’ve got all this sabermetrics going on and clubs that are going almost strictly by stat sheets.
You got to see a little bit more than stats. You have to have a little projection. And when you see a guy with an arm like that and with his age and the body and everything going with it, down the line, there’s a little bit of a projection. You feel he’s going to amount to something. Quickly, he did. And it turned out good for the Braves and good for Smoltz. (When) Smoltzie makes it this year, my wife and I will be there. I’m in Staten Island, New York, and Cooperstown is only a three-hour drive.
Friend, former Braves catcher and Smoltz’s battery-mate in 1990-1993
For some reason, if John had something small going on, something that just distracted him from his start that night, whether it was a stomach ache or a little “owy” on his knee or his finger or you name it, something always had to be not feeling correct for him to go out to pitch his best game. I don’t know why it was. But some of the best games he ever pitched, he was in some kind of discomfort before the game started.
Everybody on the team, coaching staff, knew that John and I were very close friends and I don’t think anyone has ever seen the two of us argue with each other. There was a situation in Montreal that John and I couldn’t quite connect on the signs and John made a gesture to show me up.
Well, the year before I had gotten shown up by another pitcher and John told me, “Hey, if a pitcher ever shows you up like that again, you need to go out to the mound and just air him out.” So the next time it happened, it was John showing me up. After we’d gone through the signs a couple times — because there was a guy on second and you go through multiple signs — I put every pitch that John had down twice. But for some reason, he didn’t see it one time when I put down, whatever pitch he wanted, so he kept shaking me off, shaking me off, shaking me off. He stepped off, he got back on the rubber, shook me off, shook me off, shook me off, got off the rubber and did the old head shake gesture of “What are you doing?”
So I went out and aired him out. So (pitching coach) Leo (Mazzone) came running out there and said, “What’s going on? You two guys are best friends?” It was actually hilarious. After it was all said and done, it was probably a good thing not only for John and me but for the team to see. It was one of those learning experiences for everybody. When you step between the lines, you have to let it all hang out. You’re out there to win the game, do the best you possibly can and both of us were working to win the game between the lines.
John Smoltz looks off into the distance as catcher Greg Olson comes to the mound for a conference in 1991. (Jonathan Newton / AJC File)
I’m the general manager of a golf and country club and right behind my desk is a very large artist’s rendering of that picture of me jumping in John’s arms in 1991. It’s fantastic. It’s right next to a smaller one from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that says: “Braves win west. It’s Atlanta.” I always tell people this: Yes, he pitched nine complete innings, but I had to catch him for nine complete innings. I don’t think I could have been able to hold him up. He needed to hold me up this time.
People always ask me, “Who was the best pitcher you caught?” All those Atlanta pitchers were so fantastic. I could have caught Tommy Glavine in a rocking chair. He was very precise. Outside changeup, fastball. Smoltzie beat the living crap out of me every game. Let’s face it. He had one of the best, if not the best, tight sliders in the game. That was his out pitch, that was his strikeout pitch. But to be effective, he always had to throw it about 57 feet instead of 60 feet. The ball was going in the dirt quite a bit and it was coming in there about 89, 90 mph with a little extra spin. I would get bruises. It would be a hard night at the Olson family after catching John.
Leo was big on not getting beat with your second-best pitch. Well, John couldn’t decide if his best pitch was his fastball or his slider, so he thought he had two first-best pitches. So he was never going to get beat by anything less than a fastball or a slider. We threw very few curveballs. Later on in his career, he started to develop the stupid fork ball which made me even more irritated because he could bounce that any time. But it basically fastball/slider pitcher. … His slider was so sharp. When his fastball is coming in at 94 and his slider is 89 or 90, it’s almost impossible to pick up that little bit of different spin on the ball. By the time your mind recognizes it, you’re already swinging. That two- or three-inch break, that’s all it took.
You look back at John’s record in 1991. He was 2-11 in the first half and in the second half, he was 12-2. Reversal, right? Why did that happen? Here’s the skinny that no one knows. At the All-Star break, the Olson family and the Smoltz family went to Lake Allatoona, rented a cabin. I’m an avid fisherman, I’m trying to teach John the tricks of the trade on fishing. He wasn’t very big outdoorsman as far as fishing but he came to try to learn. So we rented a pontoon for the couple days and we went to Lake Allatoona.
The second day we’re out and we’re fishing this one little cove and we weren’t catching anything. I said, “John, reel up. We’re going to go on the other side of the lake.” He goes, “Why do I have to reel up? Can’t I just do that trolling thing?” I said, “You do what you want.” It was just a small, 10-horse motor, so we weren’t going that fast and we’re cutting across the lake and he’s got his line in the water. And I’m thinking, “You idiot, you can’t catch a fish on a rubber worm on the top of the water in the middle of a lake.”
Well, about three minutes later he’s yelling, “I got one!” Sure enough, he caught a five-pound bass going across the middle of the lake. So that was the lucky break that turned his whole season around. And that’s why he pitched so well in the second half. He caught a fish that had no chance and I said, “John, now that you caught this fish where you had no chance, second half of the season, you’re not going to lose a game.”
Fellow member of the 2015 Hall of Fame class. Former Astros second baseman faced Smoltz more than any other batter (128 plate appearances), going 28-for-117 (.239) with two home runs and seven RBIs
John Smoltz kicks the dirt after giving up a home run to Houston Astros' Craig Biggio in the 4th inning, tying the score 4-4, of a loss in September 1993. (Frank Neimeir / AJC File)
We were in the N.L. West together early on. It was Atlanta, us and the California teams, so we had a lot of history together early on. And then obviously once we got into the playoffs and we had that drama that went on, over the years, it adds up.
He was good at what he did. Being a right-handed hitter, John’s a power pitcher, so fastball-slider-split. He didn’t make a lot of mistakes. He pitched to his defense, which Atlanta did and that’s the way Leo (Mazzone) taught. They were very, very good at it. They really didn’t deviate from it and that’s why they had the ability level, the three of them (Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine), to have some special numbers. They had a great game plan and they stuck to it.
John is pretty special from the standpoint that he’s got some pretty terrific numbers as a starter but then also he closed for many years. And when he was closing, bringing him in for one inning, he was really, really dominant. Starters get a little tired and their velocity drops a little bit as the game goes on. But when he come in as a (closer), I remember the split being 91, 92 (mph) at times, and to go along with 96, 97 mph with the heater and the slider was 90-91. There is no substitute for velocity. That’s what John had. So he was very difficult for a right-handed hitter to hit.
The slider was the most difficult pitch for me from anybody and John had a great slider. And it’s just a devastating pitch if you’re a right-handed hitter and you have plus fastball and you have a plus slider velocity-wise. It’s hard going up there against both of them. That’s what makes it impressive.
John was a competitor, he was a battler and he was a pro. I think that’s the ultimate compliment you can ever get from a teammate or a competitor who played against you. He was a pro’s pro at the end of the day. In the playoffs, the Braves sent us home three times (1997, 1999, 2001) and we sent them home twice (2004, 2005), so it was very respectful battles that we had against each other. I remember when we finally beat them (in the 18-inning Game 4 in 2005 NLDS,) he came by our locker room on the way out, leaving Minute Maid (Park), and said, “Hey man, good luck to you guys, I’m pulling for you guys.” It’s something I’ll never forget.
ESPN analyst and former outfielder for Phillies and Cubs.
When you played the Braves, there was a sort of relativity that they had going because you would face Greg Maddux on the right side with all the finesse and movement and control and head games. And then you faced Tom Glavine, who was kind of a flip of him: The changeups, the poise and the sort of use your aggressiveness against you.
So you had that yin-yang, where you were totally off-balance and then here comes Smoltz. And he was a whole different pitcher. He was the power arm, attack, four-seam fastball, work up in the zone, with really an electric slider. He complemented. He was the guy that may have got lost in that 1-2 shuffle at different times and He came in with this power game and gave you a whole different look.
I probably preferred facing Smoltz on some levels, not because it was by any stretch easy but it was because he was more of a power guy. I knew I was going to get a fastball. He was very aggressive. He’d come at you. And he would elevate without movement, just to get the velocity, as opposed to the other two who really relied on a lot of late action. He was just sort of a come get me guy: Here I am, good luck.
The thing that was so amazing about him is I faced him later in his career, when he became a closer, and he unfairly added the splitfinger or whatever that thing was. That was really a nightmare because the slider was already just nasty. It was more like a slurve; it had a very sharp velocity coming out of hand but it had this almost curveball break. From the perception of a hitter, it almost had a hump in it. It went up and down and it was just in between slider/curveball speed that if you try to swing at the slider, you were way ahead. If you try to wait back on the curveball, you were behind. It was that perfect match. It had a lot of bite to it, going away from righties. The split thing that went the other way and then it was pretty much unfair at that point. He started adding two-seamers and movement. So he became now a power guy with the movement of the other two, which explains why he had those really amazing years in the bullpen. It was like you were pretty much out as soon as you got in the box.
Former Braves third baseman and Smoltz teammate from 1994-2008
Even amongst the hallowed trilogy in Atlanta, I think if you ask anybody in town which one they would want in a game 7 — no disrespect to the other two, they’ve done some great things, had some great moments — I’m pretty sure the majority would put John Smoltz on the mound in a Game 7. Smoltzie had a way of digging deep and of all three, Smoltzie had swing-and-miss ability. I think we all know that power stuff wins in the postseason. When it’s cold, it’s hard for hitters to get loose. They’re not as free and eas, and power stuff tends to overpower bats in the postseason.
What probably hurt Smoltzie during the regular season helped him during the postseason because you’d love to see pitchers in the regular season be economical and try and pitch to contact more. That’s the way Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine were. They were trying to be economical. They wanted to throw a three-hit shutout on 95 pitches and the game would be over in less than two hours. Smoltzie, it didn’t matter if it was spring training or Game 7 of the World Series, he was trying to strike you out. He didn’t go as deep into games as the rest of the guys. But come the postseason, that mentality and that approach worked better than the other guys’ approaches. The more balls you put in play in postseason, the better off you’re going to be (as an offense). That’s why if you’ve got a guy who can go out there and give you 10 or 12 strikeouts a game in the postseason, I’m going to show you a guy who’s going to be very, very successful in the postseason.
You’d have guys on other teams come into town and they didn’t fear Doggie or Glavine. They feared Smoltzie. Smoltzie could embarrass you. He was our Roger Clemens. He was our Kevin Brown. He was our Randy Johnson. He could embarrass you with his stuff. He had no-hit stuff every night and if he was on, he’d strike you out three or four times and think nothing about it.
Braves closer John Smoltz has a laugh with teammate Chipper Jones after picking up his 48th save of the year as the Braves beat the Montreal Expos, 5-3, in Aug. 31, 2002, in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz / Associated Press)
I’ll never forget the time we were in Cincinnati and Smoltzie was pitching. Hunter Wendelstedt was behind the plate. Now Hunter Wendelsted’s dad Harry was one of the most respected umpires, a great guy. It was the first inning, and there was a play at third. Bret Boone comes sliding in and I laid the tag on him. He was out. There was no question about it. Hunter calls him safe and Smoltzie was backing up third and comes charging in and apparently while they were arguing, Hunter stepped on Smoltzie’s foot and they ended up bumping. So Hunter throws him out of the game. Bobby (Cox) and Smoltzie go absolutely nuts. It was getting ugly and Bobby comes out and and Hunter started chirping at Bobby and Bobby took his hat off and I mean he got nose-to-nose with him. He said “Hunter, I’m going to tell you right now, you wouldn’t have made a pimple on your daddy’s (butt.)” Bobby’s ejected. So Bobby tells Smoltzie to get back up on the mound. “It’s Hunter’s fault they bumped and you are not thrown out of this game.” I can still remember Smoltzie just standing up there on the mound like, “You can’t throw me out of this game.” Finally Bobby’s like “Smoltzie, c’mon.” And they tucked their tail and walked back into the dugout.
In 1996, Smoltz won 14 straight decisions. That year rivaled any year that Maddux and Glavine had. Doggie had the 19-2 year where he had a 1.6 ERA (1.63), which was phenomenal. But Smoltzie, Smoltzie won a lot of close games, Smoltzie won a lot of road games and for him to win 20 was incredible. He won 24. And he won like 29 including the playoffs and the All-Star game. So that year to me rivaled anything those other guys did. That was a special, special year. It was the ultimate year.
John Smoltz and Chipper Jones cut the ribbon on the NE gate before the regular season home opener at Turner Field, Friday, April 4, 1997. (David Tulis / AJC File)
Comedian and friends with Smoltz for 20 years.
Even before we met, he was my favorite Braves player. When he first came up, I thought, “Oh my gosh, this guy is just nasty, just filthy, the stuff that he’s got.” But then when we met — and I’ve met a billion athletes — I don’t know why but there was something that just clicked between the two of us.
For as laid back as I appear — and kind of am — I’m extremely competitive. I hate to lose in anything and even within my career, (Jay) Leno would always say to me, “Why do you do albums and specials because once you do it, you have to write new material?” which is the hardest part of my job. Leno never did it. That little competitive thing in me says, “I can do this.”
I thought I was the most competitive person I had ever known until I met John. You could lock us in a room with a marble and a piece of string and he would invent a game and keep stats. Smoltzie can do anything. He could have played college basketball. He’s a Hall of Fame pitcher. He’s a scratch golfer. You go bowling with him and he bowls a 220. You’re just like, this is ridiculous. I have to resort to video games to beat him and I can hold my own a little bit bowling.
I remember the first time he wanted to play golf with me. And I was like, “No, you play with Tiger. I’m not playing with you.” We go over to Golf Club of Georgia and the first hole is a par-5 and I hit my drive about 205 yards. But it’s in the middle. I can see it. I’m happy. He steps up and hits his like 340 yards, just like a rocket launch and as we were walking back to the cart, he said, “Hey, did you hear they’re going to be building a new mall over here?” I said, “No, where would they put it?” He said, “Somewhere between your ball and my ball.” And I was thinking, “Oh my gosh, this is going to be a long, long day.”
If you can ignore the Royals sweatshirt, Jeff Foxworthy has been a longtime fan of the Braves and John Smoltz. (Special to AJC)
I’ve been a baseball nut my whole life, but I’ve never been to Cooperstown and I’ve said for the last 15 years, I’ll go when Smoltzie gets in. I would hope that he would let me help him with a few jokes when he writes his speech. He needs help because let me tell you, he’s a Hall of Fame pitcher but what he really wants to be is a comedian and he’s horrible. He tells the worst jokes. And he’ll do it on TV and then when they just die, he’ll say, “Ah, Foxworthy gave me that joke.” Finally two years ago, I went to Barnes & Noble — this is no lie — I bought $150 worth of joke books and took them to him. And I said, “If you’re going to tell jokes and blame them on me, at least tell good ones.” He just laughed.
(Being from Michigan, he doesn’t have redneck in him) as much as I do. He’s always been better dressed than I am, but he played the accordion. So that takes away all your lifetime cool points.
Here’s the thing about Smoltzie. He’s not only a Hall of Fame caliber player and Hall of Fame caliber human being. He does so many good things for people. He just gives his life away and always has and he doesn’t do it for the publicity of it. Most of it is under the radar. He’s just a great guy. I’ve known a lot of athletes that were great athletes that weren’t very good human beings. This guy is a great human being.
Fellow Hall of Famer. As Braves general manager, he acquired Smoltz as a minor leaguer in a trade with Detroit for Doyle Alexander in 1987 and then managed Smoltz in Atlanta from 1990-2008
For his period in the big leagues, John was one of the dominating pitchers, right up there with Randy Johnson and Pedro (Martinez) and (Greg) Maddux and (Tom Glavine) and all those guys. He was a dynamic type pitcher, too. When he first came up, he would just blow guys away. And then as he matured and got smarter, he still blew them away but he did it more in a crafty way. He could carve up a hitter just like Maddux and Glav did.
(His versatility) was unbelievable. He came up with a knuckleball. He threw sidearm. He threw overhand. He invented pitches. John is one of the greatest athletes that I’ve ever seen, period. He could have been, I think, professional in football, basketball, any of the major sports. He was that good. If he had started golf at age 5 like a lot of the great golfers did, he would have been up there with the big boys, too.
I don’t know what type personality you could tag him with but he was always into something, always doing something, always busy. He could never shut it down. He needed to relax and playing golf after he pitched, I always liked that with all our pitchers. I recommended that. Go out and loosen up. They walk and they swing, they get loose again. It was great therapy, I thought.
John (Hagemann) was the scout (who recommended Smoltz). He’s the one that did it all, he and Paul (Snyder). John was so emphatic that this was the guy, period, that you had to take his word for it. Scouts can be wishy-washy at times like managers and everybody else grading out players. But he was so positive on John.
He was right on target. He said honestly that (the Tigers) will never trade him. I said, “Why?” He said, “Because he’s going to be an All-Star type pitcher.” Well, they were right. He became an All-Star pitcher. The Tigers wanted Doyle Alexander real bad and he was the perfect guy for them, a veteran guy that knew how to pitch and was having success. He won nine out of 11 games, so it was a great trade on their side at the time. It got them the pennant.
This scene was replayed over two decades in Atlanta, Bobby Cox making his way to talk to one of his dominant pitchers - John Smoltz. (Frank Niemeir / AJC File)
John was pretty stubborn. He never wanted to (come out of games). He could be losing a game 7-0 in the fourth inning and he wanted to pitch nine. With young arms, you’ve got to protect them as much as you can. When John got behind, if he ever did, I tried to get him out of the ballgame as quick as I could to save down the road.
We were trying to figure out what is best for guys when they come back at John’s age from Tommy John surgery. Is it (throwing) three times a week or is it every fifth day or whatever? We were short in the bullpen and you couldn’t find a better closer, a guy who never did it before. You look at John and say, shoot, he’d be the best in baseball. And he absolutely was.
He’s got all the admiration from me, the coaching staffs that we had with John all along, Leo (Mazzone) and everybody else. I was lucky to have a guy like John come along. He was a superstar.