John Smoltz: A First-Ballot Hall of Famer
The Cardinals didn't play Wednesday, but something big happened in the world of baseball.
John Smoltz announced yesterday that he'll have to have surgery on his right shoulder, thus ending his season. He stated that he intends to come back and pitch again next year, but I have to question how legitimate his chances to do so really are. He's 41 years old. He's got a whole lot of miles on that right arm. The man is one of the true warriors in the game of baseball, but I think time may have finally caught up with him.
If so, we're seeing the end of one of the great careers of recent times. Smoltz currently sits with a career record of 210-147, and added 154 saves during his tenure as the Atlanta closer. He will retire as the only man in the history of game to have amassed 200 victories and 150 saves. Smoltz is a first-ballot Hall of Famer if ever there was one.
In the early '90s, I was actually a huge Atlanta Braves fan. The Cardinals were still my team, of course, but they were awful. I had to find someone else to root for. I fell in love with Tony La Russa's Athletics, with Dennis Eckersley, Bob Welch and Dave Stewart. I also fell in love with another team that had a trio of pitchers that loomed large over the baseball landscape. The Atlanta Braves.
The first of the Braves pitchers that attracted my attention actually wasn't any of the three that they became known for. In fact, Greg Maddux hadn't even arrived in Atlanta yet when I first took notice of them. Steve Avery was my guy. The kid phenom, the lefty with the violent delivery and the overpowering repertoire. He may have flamed out early, injuries ruining a tremendous talent, but he was an awful lot of fun to watch.
Of course, it didn't take long, then, for me to notice the other two Bravo hurlers. Tom Glavine, the quiet, studious lefty with the pinpoint command of that (Bobby Cox assisted) outside corner, and Smoltz, the big, strong righty with the unreal slider. I've always been a pitching junkie, and this was a dream come true. Pitching talent the likes of which you couldn't find anywhere else in the game, really. Distinct styles, distinct deliveries, big-time results. When Maddux showed up in Atlanta, following his first Cy Young year in 1992 with the Cubbies, I didn't think any team could possibly compete with the Braves. To this day, I still can't figure out how that team, with that pitching staff, only won one championship. It just boggles the mind.
Glavine went back to Atlanta this year for his swan song. Smoltz now looks as if he may be on his way out. Maddux is still plugging along in San Diego, but for how much longer?
We may never see another staff quite like that Atlanta Braves rotation again. Three first-ballot, surefire, case-closed, Hall of Fame pitchers taking the ball one right after the other? It's never happened before; the closest equivalent you can find would be some of those staffs the Baltimore Orioles had in the '70s, with Jim Palmer leading the way. Even that, though, wasn't quite the standard of those Braves rotations.
Career Win Totals:
Smoltz: 210-147 (plus 154 saves)
If it really is the end for Smoltz, I wonder if Maddux would consider retiring too? Obviously, the two aren't really dependent on each other, but still. Glavine has stated he'll most likely retire after this season; he's got his 300 wins and his ticket to Cooperstown is prepunched and ready to go. Smoltz is going to need major shoulder surgery which he may or may not be able to come back from. If the other two go, I wonder if Maddux would just step aside too. If he did, the three of them would almost surely go into the Hall together. Three pitchers, three teammates, all going into Cooperstown the same year. That's definitely never happened before.
I have no idea if Maddux would consider doing such a thing or not. He still seems to have that fire, and he's certainly still a capable pitcher. But this is a chance to do something that has never, ever happened in the history of the game. I just wonder.
Either way, I just wanted to take a second to acknowledge a truly great career, and a truly great ballplayer. One of the classiest men in baseball, and one of the all time greats. I'll always remember those Braves teams fondly; I didn't start hating them until the 1996 Nattional League Division Series debacle.
Good luck to Mr. Smoltz. If this is the end, you couldn't possibly ask for a better career, and it couldn't have happened to a better human being.