Did $10,000 dispute cost Tigers Hall of Famer Smoltz?

If it weren’t for a dispute over $10,000 three decades ago, John Smoltz might enter the Baseball Hall of Fame this weekend wearing a Detroit Tigers cap.

The Tigers were Smoltz’s favorite team while he was growing up in Lansing, Mich., and the team signed him out of the 1985 amateur draft. But then Detroit traded him to the Braves on Aug. 12, 1987, for veteran starting pitcher Doyle Alexander.

Alexander went 9-0 that year for the Tigers, who needed each of those victories to claim the American League East on the season’s final day. Yet, the cost was Smoltz’s Cooperstown career. For decades, Tigers fans have rationalized their anguish by convincing themselves they couldn’t have had both the ’87 division title and Smoltz’s history-making 213-win, 154-save career.

But that’s not entirely accurate.

Turns out, those with knowledge of the trade talks believe Braves general manager Bobby Cox ultimately would have taken Smoltz or left-hander Steve Searcy, the Tigers’ other top pitching prospect at the time. Thus it was theTigers’ choice to part with Smoltz rather than Searcy, who went on to a 6-13 career record and 5.68 ERA for the Tigers and Philadelphia Phillies.

Two decades of baseball history — including the Braves’ 14 consecutive division crowns, five National League pennants, and one World Series title — hinged on one dubious decision (in Detroit) and good fortune (in Atlanta).

The backstory begins shortly before Smoltz was set to begin classes at Michigan State in the fall of 1985. Smoltz had lasted until the 22nd round of that year’s draft, in large part because major-league scouts believed he was destined to attend MSU — where he had accepted a full baseball scholarship and would be allowed to play basketball for legendary coach Jud Heathcote.

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But the summer of ’85 had been the best of Smoltz’s baseball life. He dominated on the mound in one tournament after another and pitched in the Stan Musial World Series. Smoltz even hit a walk-off home run — on his final high school swing — for Lansing Waverly against rival Lansing Sexton to win the local Diamond Classic tournament.

Tigers Midwest crosschecker Bill Schudlich and area scout Ken Madeja followed Smoltz closely that summer, watching his games and negotiating with his father, John. On the night before Smoltz was to begin classes at MSU, Schudlich and Madeja were at the Smoltz home in Lansing, finalizing the terms of a $100,000 signing bonus.

There was, however, a catch: The figure on the contract was $90,000 because the Tigers said that’s all they had left in the budget. That sum would be split between one payment in 1985 and another after Jan. 1, 1986. The final $10,000 — which wasn’t in writing — would be added to Smoltz’s Double-A contract once he reached that level.

The three staggered payments were abnormal for an amateur player’s first signing bonus. “You’re going to have to trust us,” the younger Smoltz remembers the Tigers telling him.

Bill Lajoie, the Tigers’ general manager at the time, had built the 1984 World Series champions but during that era the team never invested heavily in its farm system — even on something as basic as hiring a pitching coach for every minor-league affiliate.

In the spring of 1987, Smoltz was preparing to join the Tigers’ Double-A team in Glens Falls, NY — which meant he was due to receive the last $10,000 of his signing bonus. There was only one problem: Lajoie had no plans to pay it because of the team’s miserly approach to the minor leagues, a lapse in his memory, or some combination thereof.

“Truth be told, Bill had forgotten all about it,” recalls Schudlich, now in his 51st year as a baseball scout, currently with the Cleveland Indians. “We had said to John, ‘Whatever you’re going to get, we’ll tack on $10,000 the following year.’ The next year comes and goes, [farm director] Dave Miller is handing out contracts, and, all of a sudden, where’s the 10 grand? Bill said, ‘What 10 grand?’ I said, ‘Bill, don’t you remember?’”

Smoltz still has a vivid recollection of being summoned to the general manager’s office at Tigertown in Lakeland, Fla., one day that spring.

“Lajoie called me into his office over the loudspeaker, which usually meant you were released,” Smoltz remembers. “And he told me, ‘You aren’t going to get more than the minimum.’ ”

Smoltz, only 19 at the time, was stunned. His father, who had met with Lajoie at Tiger Stadium during the negotiations, was upset at the change in course. And Lajoie, it turned out, had chosen the wrong family on which to attempt a power play.

Smoltz’s father (John Adam Smoltz) worked at Tiger Stadium as an usher at the 1984 World Series. John’s grandfather (John Frank Smoltz) also had worked at the old ballpark, as a popular member of the grounds crew; he was known as “Father John” among those who worked there.

So, John Adam Smoltz had the connections necessary to reach former Tigers owner John Fetzer, who notified club president Jim Campbell. Lajoie then was ordered by Campbell to honor the contract and add $10,000 to Smoltz’s Double-A salary for 1987.

Madeja believes that Lajoie’s bitterness over paying the final $10,000 weighed heavily in the GM’s decision to offer Smoltz — rather than Searcy — to the Braves.

“Bill was upset that John’s dad called him out on that extra money,” Madeja says. “I couldn’t believe that he was going to stiff (Smoltz) on that. You stiff that kid, and his dad’s going to tell every high school coach in the state about it. How am I going to walk into another kid’s house after that? You can’t operate like that.

“It’s bad enough Bill didn’t want to pay fair bonuses. You can’t renege on an offer. I don’t care if it’s a handshake or a written contract. You pay it.”

Lajoie died in 2010 at age 76, and Schudlich delivered the eulogy at his memorial service. Though Schudlich confirmed that Lajoie was angered when Smoltz’s father contacted Fetzer regarding the $10,000 payment, he disputes the notion that Lajoie traded Smoltz to the Braves out of spite.

“I don’t agree with that,” Schudlich says. “Bill didn’t want to lose Smoltz. Everyone thought John was going to be a big leaguer, but Bill wanted Alexander. He didn’t think they’d take Smoltz. He thought they’d take Searcy for sure. He was the best pitcher (at Triple-A). Smoltz was just a throw-in on the list (of prospects for the Braves to consider). I think Bill’s reaction was, ‘Smoltz? You want Smoltz?!’

“Even people with the Braves said, ‘Who in the hell is Smoltz?’ ”

The Tigers’ handling of Smoltz was a major reason Madeja resigned exactly two months after the trade — Oct. 12, 1987, when the Tigers’ season ended with a defeat in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series against the Minnesota Twins. Alexander was the losing pitcher.

Two weeks later, Madeja joined the Seattle Mariners, for whom he’s signed Derek Lowe, Matt Mantei, Matt Thornton and J.J. Putz, among others. Nearly three decades later, Madeja still works for the Mariners as a special assistant to general manager Jack Zduriencik.

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If Lajoie had traded Searcy instead of Smoltz, Madeja might not have quit and signed that quartet of pitchers for the Tigers. But Madeja acknowledges the trade was “the best thing in the world” for Smoltz, who was 4-10 with a 5.68 ERA at Glens Falls prior to being dealt.

“No question about it,” Madeja says now. “He was good in Lakeland his first year (1986), then he was struggling in Double-A in 1987. He only had his manager, and then he’d see the roving pitching coach every six weeks or so. He was spinning his wheels. Then the Braves got him, and they had someone looking over him all the time. It was the best thing for him, development-wise.”

The Braves became the team of the 1990s, thanks to four Hall of Famers (Cox, Smoltz, Greg Maddux, and Tom Glavine) and soon to be five (Chipper Jones). Their streak of consecutive postseason appearances began in 1991 and was snapped in 2006 — the year the Tigers returned to the playoffs for the first time since Alexander’s Game 5 loss.

Smoltz probably would have become a Hall of Famer no matter where he pitched, but for him there’s still one lingering what-if: Had he attended MSU, Smoltz’s basketball career would have bridged the Scott Skiles and Steve Smith eras in East Lansing. Maybe Smoltz would have helped the Spartans reach a Final Four … and then perhaps he, like Danny Ainge before him, would’ve had the distinction of being selected in the NBA Draft after the MLB Draft.

That’s why, after Smoltz learned of his election to Cooperstown in January, the call he received from Heathcote was the most unique.

“You could’ve made it to the Basketball Hall of Fame,” the old coach told him, “but you chose baseball instead.”

Heathcote’s opinion aside, it’s safe to say Smoltz made the right decision. The same can’t be said for the Tigers, who would’ve been wise to trade Searcy instead of a future Hall of Famer.