In this SI Vault story from 1996, Tom Verducci talks to John Smoltz during his Cy Young-winning 1996 season, when the Braves' righthander broke out as one of the majors' best pitchers.
The Hall of Fame's Class of 2015—Craig Biggio, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz—will be inducted in Cooperstown on Sunday, July 26, and in their honor, we're reaching into the SI Vault for features on these all-time greats. Today's pick: Tom Verducci's June 10, 1996 feature story on Smoltz, who was in the middle of his best season as a starter: 24 wins, a 2.94 ERA and 276 strikeouts in 253 2/3 innings, and his first and only Cy Young award.
John Smoltz is the Ringo Starr of the Atlanta Braves' Fab Four rotation. Likable? Sure. You have to like someone who once tried to iron his shirt while wearing it, who calls his mom and dad regularly, and who used to be an award-winning accordion player. Unlike bandmates Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Steve Avery, all of whom have won 18 games at least twice, Smoltz, who has never won more than 15, has not evoked much appreciation for his genius or his craftsmanship, despite throwing the hardest of the four. It has been too easy to dismiss him as someone just banging on a drum.
Then he walked into the Braves' training camp this spring in West Palm Beach, Fla., grinning like a kid who couldn't keep a secret. "This is my year," he told teammates, his laugh not entirely obscuring his seriousness. "This time it's my turn for the Cy Young."
"He's always joking and goofing around," Glavine says, "but when he came out and said it, even if he was goofing, it was out of character."
Smoltz, 29, knew that his right elbow—on which he'd had surgery to remove bone spurs and chips in September 1994—felt better than it had in five years. He also didn't worry anymore that people expected him to be winning more games because he had the best stuff on the staff. Before this season he sometimes used to vent his feelings on the golf course by turning his clubs into spinning projectiles. Only on the golf course did he snap, like a few of his jettisoned putters.
"I let all the criticism and the expectations rule my life," he says. "I wasn't happy. There were times when the last place I wanted to be was at the ballpark."
With Smoltz pain- and worry-free, guess who's fronting the Fab Four this year? That's right, Ringo is on lead vocals. After losing his first outing of the season, on April 4, Smoltz had reeled off wins in 11 consecutive starts by week's end, becoming the first pitcher to accomplish that feat within a season since the Yankees' Ron Guidry did it in 1979. He is the only Braves pitcher to put together such a streak this century. (Warren Spahn won 10 straight starts in '61.) Smoltz reached double digits in wins on May 24, the fastest in the league in 92 years. (The New York Giants' Joe McGinnity beat him by three days in 1904.)
Smoltz's 11–1 start—Atlanta was exactly one third of the way through its season at week's end—betters the pace of Bob Welch, who won 27 games for the Oakland A's in 1990 to tie Steve Carlton of the Philadelphia Phillies (1972) for the most wins since Denny McLain won 31 games for the Detroit Tigers in 1968.
Smoltz also leads the major leagues in strikeouts (97) and opponents' batting average (.173) and is third in ERA (2.24). And he has yet to heave one of his irons.
"I'm finally at peace," he says. "Brett Butler [the Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder] once told me, 'If you were in a room with 100 people and 98 said nothing but positive things about you, you'd worry about the other two.' He was right. I know I'm going to lose some games and have some rough spots. The difference now is, I won't be concerned about what people say.
"One question, though, really bothered me," he adds. "Somebody asked me recently what I did to turn the corner. Turn the corner? I mean, it made me so angry. It's not like I never accomplished anything before."
Only in Atlanta would a resume such as Smoltz's go relatively unnoticed. He was the youngest All-Star pitcher in Braves history (22, in 1989), tied Spahn's franchise record with 15 strikeouts in a nine-inning game in '92, set the record for most career strikeouts (46) in National League Championship Series play and has lost only once in 13 postseason starts, putting together a 5–1 record and a 2.76 ERA. While Glavine deserves praise for playing McCartney to Maddux's Lennon, Smoltz, at week's end, had as many complete games as Glavine (33, in 32 fewer career starts) and a lifetime ERA that was almost the same (3.46 to Glavine's 3.45).
Since his elbow surgery after the strike-shortened 1994 season, Smoltz is 23–8 with a 2.88 ERA in 41 starts. Impressive? Been there, done that. Between the 1991 and '92 All-Star games, Smoltz was 22–8 with a 2.85 ERA in 37 starts. Says Glavine, "People expected him to win 30 games and strike out 500 guys. They'd ask, 'What's wrong with John?' Every pitcher in baseball would love to have bad years like he's had."
Even Smoltz acknowledges that his current hot streak has been charmed. The Braves scored at least seven runs for him in one stretch of seven starts. (They gave him that kind of support only three times last season.) When he was scheduled to pitch on just three days' rest last week in Chicago against the Cubs, a deluge postponed the game. The next afternoon a fully rested Smoltz pitched with a 25-mph wind whipping in from Wrigley Field's outfield. Smoltz blew away the Cubs with a four-hit shutout that included 13 punch-outs, after which Chicago manager Jim Riggleman said, "He looked as good as I've ever seen him."
Smoltz is so hot that Ed McMahon should be ringing his doorbell any day now. Nothing topped the serendipity of his victory on May 24 in Pittsburgh against the Pirates. Smoltz was losing 2–0 when Atlanta manager Bobby Cox pulled him for a pinch hitter with two outs and nobody on base in the seventh inning. A walk, three singles and an error later, the Braves had scored three runs and handed Smoltz a 5–3 win, as well as a bottle of champagne in honor of his 100th career victory. Smoltz stopped giggling long enough to tell Maddux, whose four straight Cy Young Awards hardly qualify him as needy, "Rub me—for luck."
"No, Smoltzie," Maddux said. "You keep it. You deserve it."
Smoltz sipped champagne, slung his ever-present golf bag over his shoulder and bounced out of the clubhouse with a smile plastered on his face. Picture Tom Sawyer with a titanium driver instead of a fishing pole. "Look at him," said Braves shortstop Jeff Blauser. "He's going so good, his biggest worry is whether to use a balata or a wound ball."
That Smoltz would be so fortuitous is something of a good howl in itself, given all the cruel twists in his career. He is, after all, the guy who threw 7 1/3 shutout innings in the seventh game of the 1991 World Series, only to lose a chance at a victory when teammate Lonnie Smith ran the bases like a British cow in the eighth inning. Then again, Smoltz could have wound up as an accordion player.
Both of Smoltz's parents, Mary and John Sr., play the accordion. John Sr., who also worked as an usher at Tiger Stadium, played at Detroit's 1968 World Series victory party. John Jr. began playing the accordion at four and developed into a prodigy. He could play a tune after hearing it once, even though he could not read music. Growing up in Lansing, Mich., he won accordion-playing contests in places as far away as Chicago.
"What I remember," he says, "is being on stages and getting trophies. And I remember all the people. I remember a hundred people watching me. I used to throw up before I played. By the time I was seven, I'd had it. I hated to practice. I told my parents, 'That's it. I don't want to play this thing any more.'"
"If you don't want to play the accordion," his mom asked him then, "what will you do when you grow up?"
"I'm going to be a pitcher," he said.
"John," she said, "it might be a good idea to have a backup plan if that doesn't work out. Do you have an idea about that?"
"Yeah," he said. "I'll be a gas-station attendant."
When Smoltz was 16, he lost a game in a national amateur baseball tournament in Johnstown, Pa., giving up three home runs in one inning. When he returned home, he grabbed a roll of tape and made a strike zone against the back of the house. Then he taped small squares in all four corners of the rectangle. He grabbed a bucket of 25 baseballs and took dead aim against those squares. When the bucket was empty, he would gather the balls and do it again. The thud of the balls against the back of the Smoltz house could be heard every day after that until the weather turned too cold. "That," his father says, "is when I knew that he would be something special."
His beloved hometown team, the Tigers, selected him out of Lansing's Waverly High in the 22nd round of the 1985 draft. Smoltz is a second cousin of Tigers Hall of Fame second baseman Charlie Gehringer. Smoltz and his father took home a piece of sod from Tiger Stadium and planted it in their backyard after Detroit won the 1984 Series. But the Tigers uprooted Smoltz in '87—he was 20 years old and had pitched in only 38 minor league games—by dealing him to Atlanta for 36-year-old righthander Doyle Alexander. Within two years, Smoltz was a major league All-Star.
"It seemed like every year people were picking me to win the Cy Young or were saying I had the best stuff in the league," Smoltz says. "Then it would be, 'Where'd he go? What happened?' That builds up, believe me."
There were times from 1991 through '94 when he stopped calling his parents. "I felt like I was letting my father down," he says. One time when he did call, from Montreal in June 1991, Smoltz seemed to be in such despair about his 2–7 record and lack of run support that when his mother hung up the phone, she told her husband, "That's it. We're going to Montreal." They immediately jumped in the car and drove eight hours, pulling into Montreal at four o'clock in the morning to offer their son comfort. Smoltz lost his next start 2–0.
In that same season, a bone spur developed in Smoltz's right elbow. He pitched brilliantly down the stretch and in the postseason (8–0 after Aug. 15), with only sporadic trouble from the spur. The injury grew progressively worse, though, and by '93 his forkball, which he developed the previous season as a change of pace to his 93-mph fastball and sweeping hard slider, was virtually useless. "I was out there on the mound thinking about so many things except the hitter and how to pitch," he says. "I worried about whether throwing the next pitch would hurt. And I was always worried about the expectations."
Smoltz and the Braves knew that surgery was inevitable. Finally, he woke up in his hotel room in Colorado on Aug. 9, 1994, and could not move his arm. He called a masseur for help. The man, who was Russian, spoke little English and knew even less about baseball. He knew enough about both, though, to tell Smoltz, "You no play today."
The players went on strike three days later. On Sept. 8, Braves doctor Joe Chandler removed the spur as well as several bone chips. Remarkably, Smoltz recovered in time to start 1995 in the Atlanta rotation. He was 12–7 with a 3.18 ERA in 192 2/3 innings, but he had never fully regained his arm strength after the operation, and it caught up to him. He allowed 11 runs in 15 postseason innings without a decision. In Game 3 of the World Series against the Cleveland Indians, he was knocked out in the third inning. Had the Indians beaten Glavine in Game 6 and tied the Series, Smoltz would have started the fourth Game 7 of his career, his second in a World Series. "Obviously, the Indians felt if they won Game 6, they would win the Series," Smoltz says. "To be honest, I don't know if I had enough left to be as good as I wanted to be."
This season his luck may have turned for the better, but Smoltz has raised his game, too. He is averaging 2.14 walks per nine innings, cutting his previous career rate by more than one third. Says Maddux, "He used to go from 0 and 2 to 3 and 2 with the best of them. Now he's not. That's a huge difference."
Also, Smoltz's forkball never has been better. He can throw it as a power pitch, with a nasty downward bite, or, with less pace, as a changeup to lefthanders. The pitch best explains why lefthanders, who batted .260 against him before this season, are hitting only .150 against him this year.
"As good as his fastball is," says Cubs third baseman Dave Magadan, "if you were 2 and 0 on him, you knew it was coming and could gear up for it. Now he throws that change down and away so well that it's almost like he misses with his fastball on purpose just to set you up for it on 2 and 0."
Says Smoltz, "I'm thinking about nothing but pitching out there on the mound now. It's fun."
He has put away the game ball from his 100th victory for safekeeping. The ones from his division-clinching and pennant-winning victories in 1991 are gone—"used or given away to charity," he says—like other balls he once set aside. But this one, he promises, is a keeper. "It's the work of a whole career, not just one game," he says. "I watched Maddux get his [in 1993] and Glavine get his [in '94]. It's been a tough grind for me. I got it a little bit slower than I would have liked."
Then he thought about the expectations, but this time they were of his own making. He looked at the baseball and was entirely comfortable saying, "I'd like to get one more of these."