I am a Braves fan.
I have been since 1985 – when the Braves were fighting with the Houston Astros for last place on an annual basis.
But in 1991, everything changed. And this is why I feel the need to clarify that I was a Braves fan prior to 1991. I am NOT a bandwagon fan. What began in 1991 was an unprecedented run of supremacy by the Atlanta Braves. Yes the Yankees won more World Series titles during the Braves’ run of 14 straight division titles. But that run of 14 straight is the mark to beat in ALL professional sports.
Of course, the Braves run of dominance was highlighted by their dominant pitching. Hall of Famer Greg Maddux won three Cy Young awards for the Braves (four straight when you count his first in 1992 he won with the Chicago Cubs). Hall of Famer Tom Glavine won two Cy Young awards.
But it was perhaps the more underrated – at the time – member of the staff who may have only won the one Cy Young award in 1996, but may have been the best pitcher of the three. Don’t take it from me though. Here’s what former Braves catcher Greg Olson had to say about 2015 Hall of Fame inductee John Smoltz.
“The Atlanta Braves had one of the best starting rotations in Major League history. I am often asked who was the best pitcher? My answer is always the same. Glav had the best control, I could catch him in a Lazy-Boy. Mad Dog was the most prepared, and his knowledge of the batter was second to none. Smoltzie had the best stuff. He had the exploding fastball and nastiest slider in the game. He beat the living crap out of me every time I caught him, and I loved every minute of it.” — Greg Olson
So who was this pitcher who had the “best stuff” of the trio? He was a 22nd round draft pick of the Detroit Tigers in 1985 who was traded to the Braves in 1987 for staring pitcher Doyle Alexander.
A pitcher who had moderate success when he first came up to the big leagues. In fact, prior to the 1991 season, he was 28-29 with an ERA around 3.70 and had just led the National League in walks the year before (90).
So when the 1991 All-Star break came around and Smoltz was sitting at 2-11 with an ERA of 5.16, people were calling for his demotion or trade. After all, the Braves were only nine games back of the Cincinnati Reds with the Los Angeles Dodgers in between. Fans were hoping for their first playoff appearance in almost a decade.
Smoltz started seeing sports psychologist Jack Llewellyn and turned his season completely around. If he doesn’t, the legend never begins and it’s likely that we aren’t celebrating Smoltz’s induction into the Hall today.
“It’s been a big key in my turnaround,” Smoltz said at the time. “The main thing he taught me was to focus on the good and forget the bad.” In the 2nd half of the 1991 season, Smoltz went 12-2 with a 2.63 ERA and pitched a complete game in Game 161 of the season – the day the Braves eliminated the Dodgers and clinched the NL West title.
In the NLCS, Smoltz began to establish himself as one of the best postseason pitchers of MLB history. Smoltz won both of his starts against the Pirates, including a complete game shutout in the decisive Game 7.
In the World Series against the Minnesota Twins, Smoltz played part in one of the greatest – and in my opinion THE greatest – Game 7 in World Series history. Smoltz and Jack Morris pitched scoreless frames into the 8th. Smoltz gave way to the bullpen when he hit trouble in the 8th, but still did not allow a run.
Morris went on to pitch all 10 innings and earned the 1-0 win.
But the legend of John Smoltz was in place.
From that point forward, Smoltz put together quite the impressive set of credentials. They include:
– Eight time All-Star (1989, 1992–93, 1996, 2002–03, 2005, 2007)
– Only pitcher in history to record 200+ wins and 150+ saves
– One of only two pitchers with a 20-win season and a 50-save season (Dennis Eckersley)
– Only the 4th pitcher in history with 3,000 K’s with one team (Steve Carlton, Walter Johnson, Bob Gibson)
– 16 postseason victories ranks 2nd all-time (Andy Pettitte)
– Set National League record for saves in a season with 55 (2002, matched by Eric Gagne in 2003)
Some may argue that Smoltz earned his spot in the Hall of Fame after his Cy Young 1996 season (24-8, 276K). Some may argue that he was enshrined when he became the 16th member of the 3,000 career strikeout club or when he made the successful transition to the bullpen.
But I argue that none of it would have been possible if Smoltz had not taken the step in seeing the sports psychologist in that 1991 season. Would Smoltz have gone on to have a HoF career anyways? It’s entirely possible. But more than likely he would have ended up a serviceable number three or four guy with a career record hovering around .500.
So, as we watch Smoltz take his place among the baseball Gods, let us recognize that it all began when a ballplayer realized he needed help to succeed and put any ego he may have had aside to do what was necessary to help himself and his team.
Selfishly, I just wish Smoltz hadn’t played that last 2009 season – split between Boston and St. Louis – so he could have gone in last year with Maddux, Glavine and Cox.
But in a way, it’s kind of fitting to have Smoltz go in by himself (yes I realize Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson and Craig Biggio are also going in this year, I mean as the lone Brave this year) allowing him to have the spotlight shine on him bright, such as he deserved during his career.