We have been conditioned in sports to celebrate the biggest, the strongest, the fastest. But they can’t touch the champions who seemingly weren’t born to run through walls.
Special admiration should be reserved for: The pitcher who somehow squeezes a 21-year, Cy Young-punctuated career out of a right limb that has endured five surgeries, including Tommy John (before it was really cool) … the guy who transitions from starter to closer when it appears his career might be over and then, as if to prove everybody else an idiot again, manages to transition back to starter … the pro athlete who turns down more money in free agency because he wants to stay home and not lose the relationship he has with his manager.
John Smoltz, the flamethrower, was in so much pain once that he “couldn’t use a fork” so he considered throwing knuckleballs all season.
John Smoltz, the medical wonder, never used performance-enhancing drugs, whether to aid in recovery from injury or in hopes of adding something to his fastball — against hitters who undoubtedly were juiced.
John Smoltz wasn’t meant to be better than most other pitchers in his era. He just was.
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He will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday. His success in the era of steroid-aided hitters with cartoon-like home run totals deserves a special place among the enshrines, along with two former teammates who were inducted last season, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux, as well as Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson from this year’s class.
All pitchers from the steroids era in Cooperstown should be given a separate wing.
If Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire or any other lab experiments get in one day, they can go down the hall, in a room with fun-house mirrors.
“For me personally, it was a grind,” Smoltz said Saturday. “I worked very hard to come back from many injuries. But when I was on the mound, I never consumed myself with the ‘what-if’ or ‘who’s that’ or ‘what are they doing’. I wanted to get people out. I wanted it to be competitive and fair. And then I would let everybody else speculate on what was going on.”
Was he ever tempted to use PEDs?
“Never once. I’ve been very blessed. I’m an outside-the-box thinker. I tried everything you can imagine, from natural ointments to you name it to get back on the mound. For me to get here and pitch through what I did seems like the most improbable journey ever. But I never was tempted to sway one way or the other and compromise my beliefs.”
Baseball is a game of numbers. Smoltz had those: 3,000-plus strikeouts, 213 wins as a starter, 154 saves in a tick over three years as a closer, eight All-Star appearances, a Cy Young, a postseason record of 15-4 with a 2.67 ERA for a franchise that had plenty fingers left for more World Series rings.
Smoltz didn’t win in October because he was some superior physical being, even if he was a power pitcher, unlike Glavine and Maddux. He won because he embraced that stage in those moments. He had a way of willing himself to dominance. The great ones always do. His most impressive performance might have come in a defeat — a 1-0 loss to Jack Morris in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series when he shut out Minnesota for 7 1/3 innings on three days’ rest before his body had nothing left to give.
Smoltz will try to squeeze as much as he can into his induction speech. He’ll touch on some career highlights. He’ll mention family, teammates, coaches and certainly Bobby Cox, who both acquired Smoltz when he was the general manager and stayed with him as a manager during early career struggles.
“(He) stuck with me in the worst of times of a 2-11 season (in the first half of 1991) when everybody wanted me down in the bullpen,” Smoltz said. He was 12-2 with a 2.63 ERA in the second half.
“You think about how one little decision would have shifted everything,” Smoltz said. “No chance I have a 20-year career with Atlanta if not for Bobby.”
But at the center of Smoltz’s comments will be injuries — the ones he endured, the people who helped him through them, the ones being suffered by young pitchers today, from youth ball to the majors. Smoltz has long been a proponent of youth coaches and parents not overworking kids, believing that has led to so many of the game’s injuries today.
“A 0.7 ERA at the age of nine doesn’t mean a whole lot,” he said.
Smoltz will be the first pitcher who’s had Tommy John surgery to go into the Hall of Fame. He believes he will be the last. The philosophy on pitching has changed and it needs to change back, he said. Give kids a break in the winter. Go back to four-man rotations in the majors. The man is full of radical ideas.
Smoltz also will give credit to Tommy John, the person. John phoned him after Smoltz had the elbow surgery in the spring before the 2000 season — and after Smoltz had tried to manage his elbow pain by throwing knuckleballs in Florida.
“He called me, at my lowest point, when I thought I was going to retire,” Smoltz said. “Thankfully, I never gave in to that decision. But I let those emotions run their course. I didn’t think anybody would wait for me. It was the last year of my contract. He called me and he said, ‘John, don’t do it. You have a lot of career left.’
“I couldn’t use a fork. I was literally hurting so bad, I thought I was done. I thought nobody had the surgery at 34 years old, until I heard he was the same age.”
Smoltz returned. He led the majors with 55 saves in 2002, his first full season back. He returned to the rotation in 2005 and had three double-digit win seasons. He played nine more seasons after the Tommy John surgery and was an All-Star in four of them.
Finally, the arm said, “Enough.” This time, he didn’t try throwing knuckleballs. But nobody would’ve doubted him if he tried.