John Smoltz: A Hall of Fame tribute

Tribute pages: Craig Biggio | Randy Johnson | Pedro Martinez | John Smoltz


How do you go from the agate type under Transactions in the newspaper sports section to raised bronze lettering on your Hall of Fame plaque in Cooperstown? Nobody has a better answer to that question than John Smoltz.

He was the pitcher the Atlanta Braves acquired from the Detroit Tigers on Aug. 12, 1987, in exchange for starting pitcher Doyle Alexander, who -- to be fair -- helped the Tigers get into the postseason that year. At the time, Smoltz was struggling for Glens Falls in the Double-A Eastern League (4-10, 5.68 ERA, 1.61 WHIP), but Braves scout John Hagemann liked him, and the Tigers valued another pitcher (Steve Searcy) more, so Braves general manager Bobby Cox settled for this 20-year-old kid from Lansing, Michigan.

The first time I wrote the name John Smoltz was in Sports Illustrated's 1988 spring training preview, for the NL West scouting report in which I picked the Braves to finish last. The ever-hopeful manager Chuck Tanner pointed to a chart behind his desk and said, "There are some outstanding arms on that chart." Tommy Greene. Derek Lilliquist. John Smoltz.

I wrote his name a lot over the next 21 years. How could you not? One of the most athletic pitchers ever, he won 213 games -- 207 more than Searcy -- and saved another 154 after selflessly agreeing to become the Braves' closer. He was a great postseason pitcher both as a starter and reliever, and he never forgot where he came from. Yes, Lansing, Michigan. But also the "Who?" the Braves got from their fans when they traded away Doyle Alexander. He was always approachable, always quotable, always honest. After he was elected to the HOF, he said, "I'm honored, I'm humbled, and when the phone call came, I was -- for the first time ever -- speechless."

In honor of John Smoltz's induction, you might want to take a closer look at tomorrow's Transactions.

--Steve Wulf


See more photos of John Smoltz and the other three members of the 2015 class. Launch gallery »


• NL Cy Young Award winner (1996)
• Eight-time All-Star (1989, 1992, 1993, 1996, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2007)
• NLCS MVP (1992)
• 1995 World Series champion
• 15-4, 2.67 ERA in 41 career postseason games
• Silver Slugger Award (1997)
• NL Rolaids Relief Man of the Year (2002)
• Roberto Clemente Award winner (2005)
• Atlanta Braves retired his No. 29 on June 8, 2012.
• The only pitcher in baseball history with at least 200 wins and 100 saves.
• Smoltz's 55 saves in 2002 is tied for the third most by a pitcher in a single season (with Eric Gagne in 2003).
• Smoltz became a closer full-time in 2002-04; during that stretch, his 144 saves ranked second in baseball behind only Eric Gagne's 152. During that three-season stretch, Smoltz had 23 more saves than Mariano Rivera.


Oct. 5, 1991
Smoltz went the distance to beat the Astros 5-2 as the Braves coined the NL West title on the penultimate day of the season, the first of many big postseason performances.

Oct. 17, 1991

Against the Pirates, on the road, in Game 7 of the NLCS, Smoltz pitched a six-hit shutout with eight K's in a 4-0 victory, good for a Game Score -- the metric Bill James designed as a simple way to measure the effectiveness of a pitcher's start -- of 82. He threw 123 pitches -- 82 for strikes -- but more important, this was the game that got the Braves' dynasty rolling and established Smoltz as the team's postseason ace. -- David Schoenfield

Oct. 27, 1991
Ten days later, Smoltz, then 24, battled Minnesota's Jack Morris -- the young gun versus the grizzled veteran -- in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. Smoltz tossed 7⅓ scoreless innings for the Braves, while his elder pitched a 10-inning shutout in a game that finished 1-0.

Sept. 6, 1998
Smoltz's best Game Score was a 93, not in his Game 7 performances against the Pirates in the 1991 NLCS or the 1991 World Series against the Twins. Not Game 5 of the 1996 World Series against the Yankees. But rather this regular-season game against the Mets.

I've been to a few hundred Mets games, and this was definitely the best-pitched one I've seen in person. (My father could top me: He was at Jim Bunning's perfect game.) Smoltz struck out 13, walked none and pitched a three-hitter that (at least according to my memory) could easily have been a perfect game.

The Mets had a bit of a rough lineup that night, with Lenny Harris hitting fifth and Jorge Fabregas hitting sixth, and Larry Vanover (to my recollection) had a very wide plate -- six of the strikeouts were looking -- but this 3-0 win was dominance at its finest. --Mark Simon

June 7, 1999

Down 3-0 early in the game, Smoltz smacked a three-run home run -- the fifth and final homer of his career -- off Dave Eiland to tie the game. Then, in his next at-bat, he singled. He finished 2-for-3 in a 9-5 win for the Braves.

Sept. 27, 2002
Smoltz pitched 1⅓ innings to preserve a win for Greg Maddux and notch his 54th save of the season, setting a new National League record. Smoltz would finish with 55 saves, a mark equaled the following season by Eric Gagne of the Dodgers.

May 24, 2007
Smoltz pitched seven shutout innings in a 2-1 win against the Mets to record the 200th win of his career, making him the only pitcher in MLB history with 200 wins and 150 saves. The losing pitcher that night: Tom Glavine.

April 22, 2008
Smoltz struck out the Nationals' Felipe Lopez in the third inning to record his 3,000th career strikeout, becoming the 16th pitcher to reach the milestone. Smoltz would finish with 3,084 strikeouts, ranking him 16th all-time.



"People are going to say that John Smoltz was the most competitive player they played with and a selfless teammate. ... Those are true, but I hope in all the celebration of his accolades on the field, we don't lose track of John Smoltz off the field. This is where he challenged me the most. He is a good man with a great heart."
-- Former Braves teammate Matt Diaz

"I say this about John; he is the most gifted athlete I have ever shared a uniform with. He can do more than just throw a baseball, as many people know. He is also a tremendous person, and I believe his strong passion to be great in that area rivals his passion to be a great pitcher."
--Former teammate C.J. Nitkowski


"I think it's pretty clear that my career wasn't all about natural talent; I wasn't sprinkled with any magic dust. I wasn't the fastest or the strongest or even the smartest, but I would argue that whatever I lacked in sheer talent, I made up for along the way with tenacity and perseverance; a lot of my success was achieved by constantly learning, adapting, and overcoming obstacles."
-- Smoltz in his 2012 book "Starting and Closing: Perseverance, Faith, and One More Year"

"To say the least, [converting to closer] was the hardest thing I'd ever done, the fast track of trying to learn on the job, faster than I was ready for. What most people don't understand is that I failed miserably in the beginning [as full-time closer], and in failing miserably it motivated me, much like the rest of my career, to rally. I gave up eight runs in two-thirds of an inning, I believe against the Mets, and I got booed. And I struggled that whole month due to a thumb injury. And at the end of the year, 55 saves kind of answered a lot of those questions. And kind of made people forget about me as a starter, which at that time was a little tough to swallow."
-- In January, at his Hall of Fame news conference

"The Hall of Fame is a pretty incredible place filled with some elite people, and it's hard to feel like you're part of that. I think the biggest thing is that when I walk in this room I may not have the most eye-popping stats, but I have one of the most unique careers."
--During his tour of Cooperstown four weeks after being elected to the Hall

"This is for everyone who doubted us. People said I couldn't make the transition back to starting. People said we had too many rookies again. But we proved everybody wrong. This is really something to celebrate."
--Smoltz after winning the World Series in 1996

"Why not chase what some see as impossible? Why not believe in yourself? Why not dare to be great ... even if it means being different?"
--Smoltz in 1998