“Which is kind of interesting. I can understand saying you don’t have room for me, but telling someone they need to hang it up, that was kind of weird.”
A free agent, McMichael spoke with long-time Braves scout Roy Clark, who was with Cleveland when it drafted McMichael, and explained why he was released. Clark came away impressed after watching him throw and informed the Braves.
Eventually a spot opened at Single-A Durham, and McMichael joined an affiliate loaded with future major leaguers, including Javy Lopez, Eddie Perez, Tony Tarasco, Pedro Borbon, Mike Kelly, David Nied and others.
Success wasn’t immediate. McMichael still struggled coming back from injury. He again contemplated retirement, but Clark encouraged him to continue going. As it turned out, the ignitor to his career was a pitch five years in the making.
“There was some scout, I wish I remembered his name, who suggested if I had a (reliable) change-up I’d be in the big leagues,” McMichael said. “It prompted me to go out and work on my change-up, and that’s when all the pieces fell into place. Within a year and a half, I was in the big leagues.”
A change-up wasn’t foreign to McMichael. He learned the pitch in 1986 while in college, though it proved ineffective, and he opted for more sinkers and sliders. Even in 1991, the pitch was an afterthought until the unnamed scout pitched his idea.
McMichael, moved to the bullpen because of struggles as a starter, had another chance at starting after Nied’s promotion. When manager Grady Little informed him, he went to Lopez with an idea.
“I told Javy, let’s throw a bullpen (session), and I’m not going to throw anything but change-ups,” McMichael said. “He said, ‘Oh, OK. Let’s try it.’ As I started throwing them, he stops and says, ‘Where in the world did that come from?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, but I’m going to keep throwing it to see if it’s legit.’
“We threw 13, 14 change-ups in a row, make them go to the left and right. I had six starts until the season was over with, and I didn’t give up one run, and I struck out two an inning throwing all change-ups.
“When you get to the bottom of a career, the bottom of your life, that’s when you start (changing). … I think that’s where I was in my career, not necessarily my life, but my career. I had to reinvent myself. God made a way, I found that change-up, and I rode it through the World Series.”
After two minor-league seasons, McMichael made the big-league club in 1993 as the last man in the bullpen. McMichael suspected he was invited to big-league camp as an organizational reward for how he’d persisted. (He described it as a “thank you.”) But nobody, including manager Bobby Cox and pitching coach Leo Mazzone, had any idea that McMichael would so emphatically earn a spot.
After Steve Avery was knocked out early in an exhibition game against the Mets, McMichael entered for the first time. The Braves were eager to see him face a power-laden lineup.
“I remember I struck out Howard Johnson and Bobby Bonilla to end the inning,” he said. “I remember walking off the field and Bobby (Cox) looking at me like, ‘Way to go, good job.’ Probably a little surprised, but that was really the first time he’d seen me in action.”
The next time out, McMichael faced the Yankees. He retired Don Mattingly, Wade Boggs (via strikeout) and Bernie Williams.
“At that point, I think they thought, ‘Is this kid legit or what?’” McMichael said. “I pitched that whole spring without giving up a run until I think the last game against the Yankees.
Mazzone remembered the same sequence: “We put him in against the Yankees, Mattingly and those guys, and he made them look sick. Swings and misses. Now, we’re using him on a regular basis in spring training, and nobody is touching him.”
Terry Pendleton once approached Mazzone after one of McMichael’s clean innings, insisting that the righty belonged on the team. Mazzone and Cox agreed.
“I said, ‘Bobby, if we need a left-handed reliever, Greg McMichael can be our left-handed reliever,’” Mazzone said. “Bobby said, ‘I know. Because of that great change-up from the right side.’ … Bobby talked John Schuerholz into McMichael making the club, and he had my support, that’s for sure. His value was being a right-handed reliever who was our left-handed reliever, too, because of that change-up.”
Mazzone, Cox, Pendleton and everyone else advocating for McMichael were proved correct. He provided immediate impact, finishing second in National League rookie-of-the-year voting (Dodgers catcher Mike Piazza was the winner). McMichael’s first campaign featured a 2.06 ERA and 19 saves across 74 games.
The Braves won 104 games, though they failed to advance to their third consecutive World Series after losing the National League Championship Series to Philadelphia in six games. McMichael posted a 3.84 ERA with 21 saves in 51 games the following season, but the strike stopped the season after the Braves were 68-46, chasing the 74-40 Expos in the NL East.
So McMichael hadn’t experienced a World Series until the team’s peak. The ’95 Braves were the NL’s best club – finished five wins better than Cincinnati in the regular season – and topped the Rockies and Reds to reach another Fall Classic. In the NLCS, McMichael was brilliant. He made three appearances, tossing 2-2/3 scoreless innings and getting the save in Game 1.
“He was tremendous against Cincinnati in those playoffs in ’95,” Mazzone said. “He was huge in a couple close games.”
McMichael acknowledges he remembers more about his performance in the NLCS than the World Series, which was fittingly against the Indians. Much of it came back to him when he watched Fox Sports Southeast’s replays in late April and early May, during which he also participated in a Zoom chat with his former teammates.
Against the franchise that years earlier told him to retire, McMichael made three appearances. He pitched 3-1/3 innings, allowing one earned run on three hits. He pitched in games 2, 3 and 4. The Braves won in six.
“I didn’t remember much about the games I pitched in,” he said. “I remember the overall feeling of being in the World Series. I remember how exhausted I was after. But being able to go back and relive those inning-by-inning things (during the replay), it really brought back to life things that I didn’t think about for years. That was a lot of fun.
“That whole season, we played extremely well. The bullpen clicked. There were a lot of things that happened during that year that made it unique and special. From coming off the strike, to replacement players, to starting the season late, to be in the World Series and playing against my former team. It was a crazy, crazy year.”
McMichael had an eight-year career, also pitching for the Mets, Dodgers and A’s. He rejoined the Braves and made 15 appearances in 2000, but suffered a rotator-cuff injury, leading to his retirement.
In 2010, McMichael became the Braves’ director of alumni relations, a position he still holds today. He and an in-game coordinator Ricky Mast also host a podcast, “Behind the Braves,” started by the team last season. He and his wife, Jennifer, reside in Roswell and have four children.
“I always thought I’d be a Brave, living in the South and growing up in Tennessee,” he said. “Obviously the Braves were near and dear to my heart. … I knew the Braves did it well. They were a top-five organization in baseball. There was something special about the Braves organization just because of that rich tradition, the quality of ballplayers and the front office, coaches.
“Now we’re trying to get back to that phase, and I think we’re really close. We’re ready for another (championship). It’s time to get back going on that.”
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'
» GREG MADDUX: Mental master at his best during '95 season
» JOHN SMOLTZ: No Game 7, but one heck of a dogpile
» ANNOUNCERS: Championship call years in the making
» DAVE SHOTKOSKI: Remembering pitcher killed in spring training
» MARQUIS GRISSOM: Dream comes true for Atlanta native