How Detroit landed Smoltz — then blew it with him

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – The old baseball scout is telling a story.

Here’s the one about the time he convinced a 22nd round draft pick to sign a contract. John Smoltz wanted to go to Michigan State, or at least his parents wanted him to go to Michigan State. But by the end of that summer in 1985 the 18-year-old kid from Lansing was throwing in the low 90s, and the old scout thought the kid wanted to play ball. He just had to come up with a little more money, and sell the parents.

“I told his parents, ‘You know, eventually John is going to do what John wants to do,’” said Bill Schudlich, whose now 75 years old and has spent 51 one of those sitting on old wooden bleachers.

He offered Smoltz a $90,000 bonus and a chance to travel with Detroit, his childhood heroes, for the final few weeks of that 1985 season, the year after the Tigers had won the World Series. That closed the deal.

“His mother said, “OK, but if anything happens to John, I have Italian friends on the east side of Detroit,’’ Schudlich recalled laughing.

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“I saw her a few months ago. John had a get together for some friends in Michigan. She came up to me and said, ‘I heard you were mad at me.’ I said, ‘Why would I be mad? You only threatened my life.’ But she admitted things worked out alright for John.”

Smoltz is going into the Hall of Fame this week. Things worked out just fine for everybody. Except maybe Detroit.

The Braves today are focused on selling off pieces of their present for their future. They can only hope one of the trades works out as a well as one in 1987 did.

Late that season, they sent veteran starting pitcher Doyle Alexander to Detroit for Smoltz, who was floundering in his second year in the minors. Alexander went 9-0 down the stretch for the Tigers, who won their division but lost the American League Championship Series to Minnesota. Smoltz turned into a Cy Young winner and eight-time All-Star with more than 3,000 strikeouts.

That trade, orchestrated by then general manager Bobby Cox, was the impetus in forming the core of the Braves’ rotation. Alexander’s exit in August of 1987 opened a roster spot for a prospect named Tom Glavine.

“I just remember being in Richmond and getting the phone call that I was getting called to the big leagues,” said Glavine, a Hall inductee last year. “The timing was kind of weird because I had just lost a game in Toledo.”

Had he ever heard of Smoltz?

“No. I just knew we had traded for some minor-league kid with the Tigers.”

Smoltz likely would’ve been drafted in the first five rounds if teams didn’t believe he was going to Michigan State. He ultimately signed with Detroit the night before he was scheduled to begin classes.

But the Tigers turned one of their potentially greatest signings to one of their greatest missteps. It wasn’t so much the trade — Doyle Alexander gave them what they wanted — as it was failing to realize what they had with Smoltz. Otherwise, they might have made him off limits to the Braves.

Detroit was Smoltz’s hometown team. His grandfather father worked on the grounds crew at the old Tigers Stadium for nearly 30 years. So initially, he wasn’t happy about the deal that sent him to a perennial doormat in Atlanta. But he admits he was a “miserable” talented mess in the minors, The Tigers didn’t have a pitching coach in Glens Falls, N.Y. (Double-A).

“I had to basically figure things out on my own a lot,” Smoltz said.

“That’s true,” Schudlich said, who’s now semi-retired and a consultant with Cleveland. “We had one pitching coach for all the minor leagues. He’d go to all the teams. (Team president) Jim Campbell didn’t want to open the purse strings.”

Cox made the deal for Smoltz, then dispatched Leo Mazzone to work with him in the Instructional League. Mazzone fixed him. Quickly.

“When I got to the Braves they had all of these pitching coaches where the Tigers just didn’t,” Smoltz said.

The Tigers had given the Braves a list of a few prospects as potential trade bait for Alexander. They were surprised when the Braves wound up going off the list and taking Smoltz, who at the time was 4-10 with a 5.68 ERA in Glens Falls. But he had caught the eye of scout John Hageman.

“We never thought they’d pick him,” Schudlich said. “But John had athletic ability and great makeup. You could tell he had a baseball sense about him when he was playing in the field. He was coachable. But he wasn’t getting any instruction in Detroit.”

These are the things that crush, or make, organizations.

It’s not uncommon for a team to trade a prospect and later get burned by the deal. The difference in this deal is Smoltz was dying on the vine in Glen Falls, and it wasn’t his fault. He was a young pitcher who just needed some guidance. Schudlich knew as much.

“I can’t tell you that I thought he would be a Hall of Famer. Any scout who says something like that isn’t telling you the truth,” he said. “We sign a thousand guys who you think are good. Ninety percent of the time they’re not good. But he had instincts and the growth potential to get stronger.”

It was a trade neither franchise will forget.

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