Mike Minor had yet to be born in the summer of 1987 when the Braves traded proven starter Doyle Alexander for some accordion-playing, loose-jointed minor leaguer named John Smoltz.
Still, he has a connection to that bygone era. Minor is today a Braves starter, a cog in the franchise that got fat on the work of Smoltz, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. Each Braves pitcher who follows, like an heir to a fortune, has to measure himself against that tradition.
As Minor has struggled this year, he has found some comfort in Smoltz’s example. He knows well the story of 1991, when Smoltz turned around an awful start (2-11) with a 12-2 second half and ultimately righted a listing career. The kid finds that to be a really useful baseball parable.
Just how well it all worked out for Smoltz will be evident Friday night.
That’s when the Braves will hoist his No. 29 to the rafters, where it will join Maddux’s No. 31 and Glavine’s No. 47 and finally complete a mural of the Braves’ halcyon days. There can be no doubt that pitching is this franchise’s trademark. Not when three pitchers from the same era — their careers overlapped in Atlanta from 1993 to 2002 — will have their numbers retired and tacked to the left-field façade.
It may be a long time before another Braves pitcher is so honored.
The usual order when invoking the memory of the troika goes something like Glavine-Maddux-Smoltz. Or Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz.
One is always the last in line. For his enshrinement day, at least, Smoltz can be promoted to the head of the list.
“It’s something I didn’t care about. However it came out, I was part of a great pitching staff,” Smoltz said. “I didn’t care who got the credit, didn’t care about anything other than winning a championship.
“It would have been nice to win a few more [than one World Series]. All things said, we had an incredible run.”
He left his mark
Smoltz was the power pitcher of the trio, the one with the big arm, the big slider and the most postseason strikeouts in history (199).
Each of the three left distinct imprints on the franchise. Smoltz set some literally in concrete. When he was dispatched to the bullpen midway during the 2001 season, Smoltz decided he didn’t like the sparse accommodations out beyond Turner Field’s right-field wall. So he spent thousands to renovate the space. To this day, Braves relievers enjoy the air-conditioned ready room. The recliners that replaced the uncomfortable folding chairs — including the one Smoltz brought from his home — are getting a little threadbare, however.
In 20 years with the team, Smoltz also left a legacy of resilience and adaptability.
As he confronted a series of elbow and shoulder problems — including Tommy John surgery in 2000 and a shoulder surgery in 2008 that ultimately ended his career with the Braves — Smoltz reinvented himself over and over again. The starter became a closer capable of saving 55 games in a season (2002). The closer moved back to the rotation when he determined the routine of starting was easier on his arm, and won 44 games over a three-season span (2005-07). He rehabbed from shoulder surgery at the age of 41 just to break from the Braves and quietly finish out with Boston and St. Louis in 2009.
Life after the game
These kids today know just enough about Smoltz’s winding career path to be blown away by it.
“Can’t even imagine it,” said the Braves’ most impressive young starter this season, Brandon Beachy.
“The few times I’ve been out of the bullpen, a couple times in college and a couple times here, it’s just not the same,” Minor said. “You feel rushed. You feel out of routine. It’s a completely different ballgame.”
In retirement, Smoltz said he has had time to come to peace with the way it ended with the Braves. “There was a little bump in the road, and that bump became a mountain at some point [in his dealings with team president John Schuerholz]. Now we’re back to a bump. I realize time will take care of a lot of things,” he said.
He has found that, while there is no duplicating the emotional rush of walking to the mound, either to start or to close, there is life after baseball. At least there is life on the other side of baseball, where he serves as an analyst for TBS broadcasts. Having helped start Kings Ridge Christian School in Alpharetta, Smoltz also is forever locked into the cycle of fund-raising.
“Walking away [from playing] was easier for a couple reasons. I knew I went as far as I could. And I gave everything I could possibly give with no regrets,” he said.
Smoltz has discovered that throwing a baseball is not like riding a bike. When he attempted to throw out the first pitch before a Kings Ridge game a couple months ago, he bounced it 10 feet in front of the plate.
One of his great unmet challenges is trying to sell his $7 million Milton estate. In the meantime, he continues to cut the grass himself. Smoltz always has found peace in mowing.
He is a published author, having committed his life to the book “Starting and Closing: Perseverance, Faith and One More Year.”
A reader should at least take this much from the book, its author suggests:
“I don’t think people realized, even some of my teammates, how bad it was for me. How much I had to deal with. I put it in there for people to gain a perspective that you can in the midst of all that persevere, overcome. You can have successes in the midst of some pretty tough times.
“And learn how to get out in front of things instead of playing it safe. Playing it safe gets you nowhere. It makes you feel comfortable but it doesn’t get you anywhere.”
As Smoltz has made the book-signing rounds, he has been struck by the fans’ appreciation for what the Braves pitching wrought. In the moment, perhaps, they took it for granted when Smoltz, Maddux and Glavine paraded to the mound. But now the power of nostalgia compels them to realize what they no longer have.
Looking back fondly was especially easy last week when the team was in the throes of an eight-game losing streak. Such prolonged frustration was impossible when starters like those three were lined up. Between 1993 and 1999, when all three were solidly in the starting rotation, the Braves had only one losing streak as long as six games.
“The intensity with which people approach us now versus then is night and day because they realize that, wow, that was a pretty incredible time,” Smoltz said.
“[The players] certainly felt confident every time someone went to the mound that we were going to watch something special. And, for the most part, we did.
“Looking back and seeing what we went through, it’s safe to say it’s not going to happen again.”
While today’s Braves pitchers do borrow slivers of wisdom from that era, the examples of Smoltz, Glavine and Maddux can also intimidate. They represent a standard nearly impossible to meet.
“I’m not going to be able to live up to that. And I know that, so I’m not going to try to,” Beachy said. “I’m just going to try to be the best I can be.”
Friday night is for remembering a time when pitching was unquestionably king.
SMOLTZ BY THE NUMBERS
He is the only pitcher in Major League history with at least 200 win (213) and 150 saves (154).
Overall record of 213-155. Career ERA of 3.33.
Record with Braves of 210-147. ERA of 3.26.
Career strikeouts: 3,084. Career walks: 1,010.
Has most strikeouts in postseason history, 199.
Career postseason record of 15-4, with four saves.
Eight All Star appearances.
One Cy Young Award (1996).
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