Wiedmer: Smoltz keeps Braves' Big Three intact

Wiedmer: Smoltz keeps Braves' Big Three intact

January 7th, 2015 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

As former Atlanta Braves pitcher Tom Glavine began his Hall of Fame acceptance speech last summer in Cooperstown, N.Y., he noted, "Our good friend Smoltzie better be here next year."

Next year arrived Tuesday with news of the latest Hall of Fame class, and Glavine's politicking apparently worked. John Smoltz will join Glavine, fellow Braves 2014 inductees Greg Maddux and manager Bobby Cox, as well as 2015 inductees Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and Craig Biggio in the sports world's most exclusive Hall.

The quartet of Biggio, Johnson, Martinez and Smoltz is the first four-member class since 1955 and only the fourth to have that many in 71 elections.

"I think that 'What if' scenario started creeping in while I was covering last summer's ceremony," Smoltz said during a Tuesday afternoon news conference in Atlanta. "I was nervous for them (Cox, Glavine and Maddux) to get (the speeches) right. You think about all the games you play and you have so many tries to get it right. But you've just got one try on that."

That he made it in on the first try -- just like Glavine and Maddux -- makes it better, if not perfect. Especially since the voters had to use common sense to vote for Smoltzie.

He wasn't like "Big Unit" Johnson with his 303 career wins and 4,875 strikeouts. He also didn't win three Cy Youngs like Martinez, or finish two seasons as a starter with a sub-2.00 ERA. He didn't even have the 3,000 hits of Biggio, who played catcher, second base and outfield in his long career with the Houston Astros.

But what Smoltz had more of than any Hall of Famer other than Dennis Eckersley was versatility. He won 213 games as a starter. He collected 154 saves. He went an astounding 15-4 in the postseason with four saves, a 2.67 ERA and 199 strikeouts in 209 innings over 41 games (27 starts) in 25 series. That .789 postseason winning percentage is the second-best all-time behind Curt Schilling (.846) among pitchers with at least 10 starts.

And it's that postseason success that Smoltz believes led the Hall's voters to name him on 82.9 percent of the ballots, comfortably above the 75 percent needed for election.

"I think that third component (the postseason) kind of pushed me over," he said.

To watch him work for all those years as one of the the Braves' Big Three was to know he shouldn't have needed a push. Yes, both Maddux (355) and Glavine (305) had more wins. But it was Smoltz who delivered the goods most often come the postseason, when pitching with power so often trumps pitching with panache.

This isn't to say he was better than Tommy Gun and Mad Dog, just that he equally deserved to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, which he was.

"I'm about the most competitive person I know," he said Tuesday, then smiled and added, "which itself is probably a competition."

They were competitive in everything. Cy Youngs. Gold Gloves. Silver Sluggers, which they all fought to win as good-hitting pitchers, though only Glavine (4) and Smoltz (1) succeeded.

Yet as much as they always competed for awards or on a golf course, one quote from Smoltz's Tuesday presser showed how close they were and are.

"I would have given anything to save Tommy's 300th win, or Greg's 300th," Smoltz said of his time in the bullpen after one of his five arm surgeries. "I don't believe I ever blew a save for a starter. I knew how hard it was to go seven or eight innings, leave with a lead and not get the win."

He's pretty much been a winner at everything he's done. He's an accomplished accordion player. Tiger Woods once called him the best golfer he's ever played a round with outside the PGA Tour. He was an all-state basketball player in high school in Lansing, Mich., before the Detroit Tigers drafted him in the 22nd round of the 1985 draft, the 574th player chosen.

"One of my first goals was to stick around long enough to give up 100 home runs," Smoltz said, "because I figured you'd have to be pretty good to play long enough to give up 100 home runs."

He actually gave up 288 round-trippers over 21 seasons, though almost none of them cost the Braves when it mattered most.

"I remember one of the first games I was in the bullpen," he said. "I gave up eight runs. A friend of mine called me and said if you can string together 50 scoreless innings you can get your ERA down in the 3s."

Yet it was what he said about the Braves Way through those 14 straight division titles, Smoltz on board for all of them, that best frames the Big Three's legacy in an age when so many in baseball have been disgraced by their own inability to play by the rules regarding performance-enhancing drugs.

"We have so much pride in having done it the right way," he said. "There's extreme peace when you do it the right way."

There are both peace and pride throughout Braves Nation this week that Smoltz joined Glavine and Maddux as first-ballot Hall of Famers, yet one more example of Smoltz's belief that the Braves organization "believes the quality and the character of the person should match their athletic ability."

But that doesn't mean the competitor in Smoltz is no longer driven to prove his athletic ability.

Reminding the media that the Lake Tahoe celebrity golf tournament for athletes falls a week or so before the Hall of Fame inductions, Smoltz said, "Hopefully, (the Hall) can come after a Lake Tahoe win. That would be really nice."

That would certainly seem fitting for the toughest competitor the Braves may ever know.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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