As that season was ending on the night of Oct. 28, 1995, Smoltz didn’t know exactly what to feel. But, again, he was hopeful.
The early innings of Game 6 of the World Series against Cleveland were grinding along without resolution. Tom Glavine was mowing ’em down — if a change-up guy can actually mow (maybe it’s more like politely asking ’em to leave). David Justice had not yet gifted those fans he had so recently ripped with his sixth-inning solo home run. And there sat Smoltz, your presumptive Game 7 starter, caught between wanting this all to end and trying to wrap his mind around a potential winner-take-all finale.
Game 7 — two of the more glorious words in all of sports — had become his thing. It was a Smoltz specialty, as much a part of him as his voice, which is now so prevalent doing games for Fox and the MLB Network. Already in his then-young career, he had pitched in three postseason Game 7s, the Braves losing one against Minnesota in the 1991 World Series despite his 7-1/3 scoreless innings and winning both his starts against Pittsburgh in the ’91 and ’92 National League Championship Series.
So, amid this game the Braves would win by the skinniest of margins — 1-0 — Smoltz stewed.
“I’m watching a game that is not well in hand that Glavine is absolutely dominating, and as a seventh-game starter I’m not wanting to think about pitching because I want to win that game and win the World Series,” he said.
“It was close, and there was so much tension that I couldn’t allow myself to think one way or another and put too much emotion into a game I had nothing to do with.”
There would be no World Series Game 7 in 1995, which Smoltz happily traded in for another duty reserved for baseball’s ultimate winners.
“It was one of the greatest feelings to go dogpile your last game of the season,” he said. “It’s the greatest feeling in the world to end your season on a win.”
One of the strange turns of the 1995 Braves postseason was the fact that Smoltz wasn’t a bigger player during any of it. His long list of postseason success — career 15-4 record plus four saves in 41 appearances, 209 innings pitched, 2.67 ERA — is a major part of his Hall of Fame resume.
But 1995 didn’t get him to Cooperstown. First, there was a no-decision in a 7-5 loss to Colorado in the NL Division Series. Then a no-decision in a 6-2 win over Cincinnati in the NLCS (a quality start of seven innings, two runs allowed). Game 3 of the World Series in Cleveland, 25 mph gusts pushing the wind chill down to 29 degrees, was one he’d like to strike from the record.
“I didn’t pitch well at all,” Smoltz said. “I struggled mightily in that cold; it was one of coldest days of the year. I remember telling Bobby, I can’t throw a slider, I can’t throw a split, I got nothing. It was like holding a cue ball. I was out of there in 2-1/3 (innings). Of all the postseason appearances, that probably was the only real clunker.” He yielded four runs in that short stay, and the Braves lost 7-6 in 11 innings.
In between the beginning and the end of that championship season, what Smoltz remembers most is the growing pressure on this franchise to win it all. Unfair or not, he was beginning to hear comparisons between the Braves and the benchmark for big-game disappointment, the Buffalo Bills. That despite the fact that the Bills had lost four consecutive Super Bowls at the beginning of the 1990s and the Braves had “only” lost half as many World Series.
“The pressure was mounting on us to do something that we hadn’t done — that was finish one off,” he said. “That kind of pressure continued to grow as we came to feel we were a really, really good team.”
Of the Braves Big Three, the Hall of Fame triumvirate that also included Greg Maddux and Glavine, Smoltz had the quietest 1995. Maddux won his fourth consecutive Cy Young Award. Glavine went 16-7 with a 3.08 ERA. Smoltz was 12-7 with a 3.18 ERA.
Ah, Maddux, was there nothing that cat couldn’t do with a ball? Any ball, mind you.
It was just a couple days after that scintillating Game 6 and Maddux and Smoltz decided to really keep the party going with an afternoon of bowling. Two starters on a recently anointed World Series champion created just a little bit of a stir when they showed up at the Alpharetta lanes.
And Maddux smoked Smoltz. The loser doesn’t remember the scores exactly, just Maddux’s unorthodox style. “He didn’t put any fingers in the ball, he kind of cupped it. I asked if that was illegal because he had such an incredible score and came to find out that it’s not illegal,” Smoltz said.
What ’95 did for Smoltz was give him a running start into the following season. And in one meaningful way he would outshine even Maddux. Once more confident in his elbow, he reported to that next spring training feeling great, feeling confident.
In his book, “John Smoltz: Starting and Closing,” Smoltz also points to another event in ’95 — a long conversation with the Braves team chaplain — as “the day I truly became a Christian.” With that, Smoltz added another layer of spiritual strength to the physical gifts he possessed and would go on to the best season of his career.
“Halfheartedly, I was sort of joking to the coaches, I went into (1996) spring training and told the coaches Maddux’s run of Cy Youngs was going to end. I kind of said it in jest, but I really did feel good about that year,” Smoltz said. And indeed, after going 24-8 with a 2.94 ERA, he joined the exclusive Cy Young club, wresting the award from Maddux’s tyrannical grasp.
No ring in 1996, though. Nor any other year.
Smoltz, 53, is now a grandfather who has shaped himself into a golfer good enough to win on the celebrity circuit (two-time winner of the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions outside Orlando) and occasionally compete on the over-50 PGA Tour. Asked what he’ll tell his grandson one day about granddad’s big ring, he laughed and said, “Here’s the hard part, it will be convincing him I played baseball, not golf.”
And asked the lasting emotions of winning it all 25 years ago, both personally and more big-picture, Smoltz first found a way to co-join his two sporting passions.
“The only thing that comes close, from an individual standpoint, was when I qualified for the U.S. Senior Open (2018). I had that euphoric feeling. There was so much emotion that went into that day of actually accomplishing something I never thought I’d accomplish, and I remember just screaming in the car. I just started screaming. From a team concept nothing comes close (to winning the Series).
“It was such a relief for the fans and the people of Atlanta to finally be talking about a championship. I never dreamt that would have been one of the only ones here to win — minus soccer — that we would still be talking about all these years later. That’s really hard to believe.”
MORE FROM THE SERIES
» About the series
» FURMAN BISHER: Atlanta's finest moment
» SPRING TRAINING: Starting with replacement players
» MARK BRADLEY: A subdued season, a giddy ending
» BOBBY COX: The best manager we'll ever see
» BUILDING THE BRAVES: How the championship team was built
» CHIPPER JONES: 'No bigger beneficiary of '94 strike than me'
» ANNOUNCERS: Championship call years in the making
» DAVE SHOTKOSKI: Remembering pitcher killed in spring training
» MARQUIS GRISSOM: Dream comes true for Atlanta native