Smoltz enters HOF with a wig, thank you to Tommy John for crucial call
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Tommy John surgery was a pivotal moment in the path John Smoltz took to the Hall of Fame. So too, was a phone call from that procedure’s namesake.
In his comeback after having the ligament in his right elbow repaired in 2001, the 34-year-old Smoltz was struggling. He had made five starts with a combined 5.76 ERA, including giving up five runs on six hits in three innings to the Rockies.
"I was going to retire," Smoltz said.
The surgery’s first recipient in 1974 — also at age 34 — John’s call helped jump-start Smoltz’s second act. He is the first player to undergo the UCL reconstruction and reach the HOF as he was inducted Sunday in a class that included Craig Biggio, Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez.
"He said ‘John, I’m telling you, don’t do it,’" Smoltz recalled John telling him. "’You’ve got a lot of career left. I pitched 11 years afterward.’
"It motivated me to go through the process. There wasn’t as much history then as there is today. It’s a no-brainer today as far as success rate. I’m glad for it and I want to thank him for it."
Smoltz would move forward, transitioning to the closer role, where he saved 154 games — and became a three-time All-Star in the role — before moving back to a starter in 2005. He is the only player in history to win at least 200 games and save more than 150.
He took the stage Sunday with that unique resume, former rotation mates Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and manager Bobby Cox behind him. In a wide-ranging 29-minute speech — which still trails Carlton Fisk’s 37-minute opus in 2000 — Smoltz mentioned his past as an accordion player, name-dropped comedian Jeff Foxworthy and donned a black wig to poke fun at Glavine and Maddux.
He did leave out former Braves owner Ted Turner, which he mentioned afterward was an oversight, but did supply that nod to last year when Maddux poked fun at his hairline.
Finally, he turned his attention to John and that phone call.
— #SmoltzHOF (@Braves) July 26, 2015
"I just, no one that I knew had had it at the age of 34 until I heard that he had the same surgery at the same age and he pitched 11 more years," Smoltz said Saturday. "Now granted, he wasn’t a flame-thrower but it was like a much-needed phone call to get me over the top."
Together, Glavine, Maddux and Smoltz were the foundation of the Braves teams that won 14 straight division titles and the 1995 World Series, "We never dreamt that we might be apart," Smoltz said. "So we played as if we were going to be together forever."
But in the hierarchy of that rotation, which combined for seven Cy Young Awards, Smoltz was different. Glavine and Maddux were defined by their control, their command of their pitches and an ability to vary their speeds
"They made it look a lot easier, at times," Smoltz said. "I know they still sweat the same way I did, but it just didn’t look like it."
Smoltz was, as his Hall of Fame plaque reads "a workhorse power pitcher … with a dynamic fastball, a deceptive slider and a darting splitter." He was the working man antithesis to the those pitchers he’s forever linked playing with emotion that was different than the cool, calm Maddux or the stoic Glavine.
"(People) felt like I gave everything I had every time I pitched and that’s kind of what I felt like," Smoltz said. "I had fun. I learned to know the difference between having fun and being serious at the moment and people saw that.
"I was not afraid to show my emotions, but at the same time I learned how to handle my emotions. Easier said than done, because early on I didn’t do a very good job."
Like in 1991 when he was dealing with control problems and was 2-11 with a 5.16 ERA at the season’s midpoint.
Drafted by the Tigers in 1985 and dealt to the Braves two years later, Smoltz became a fixture in Atlanta’s rotation by ’89 when he made his first All-Star team. But two years later he was dealing with control problems and the debate raged whether Smoltz should be moved to the bullpen or demoted to the minors.
Instead, Cox stuck with him.
"You think about the one little decision of not sticking with me and everything would have shifted," Smoltz said.
He went 12-2 the rest of the way with a 2.63 ERA in his last 18 starts, fanning 78 in 123 1/3 innings and pitched the National League West-clinching game as the Braves completed their worst-to-first turnaround, jump-starting their run of 14 consecutive division crowns.
"My belief has always been if you’re good enough to come up and we liked him down in the minor leagues a lot you’ve got to give them time," Cox said. "There’s going to be some down times, believe me, in the major leagues, either as a hitter of pitcher.
I love sticking with people and I’ve stuck with a lot of people that really succeeded when people didn’t think they would."
In 20 years in Atlanta — he played his final season of ’09 with the Red Sox and Cardinals — Smoltz was an eight-time All-Star and the ’96 Cy Young Award winner. Ten times he won 14 or more games and he twice led the NL in wins, innings pitched and strikeouts.
He was also defined by his resiliency, undergoing five surgeries in all — four on his elbow and another on his shoulder — and he dealt with a variety of ailments that landed him on the disabled list. But Maddux points to Smoltz’s versatility, like in 1999 when began throwing a knuckleball to take pressure off his elbow and delay surgery.
"There wasn’t a pitch invented that he couldn’t throw," Maddux said. "I’ve seen him throw a circle-change, splits, knuckleballs, curves. I mean, he threw every pitch in the book and he could learn it quickly and he threw it well."
Smoltz said he approached his speech like a big game, a stage he thrived on. He ranks second all-time with 15 postseason victories, trailing only Andy Pettitte’s 19 and allowed two or less runs in 18 of his 27 starts, including throwing eight scoreless innings in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series vs. the Twins.
"If you wanted to win a big game, there was nobody better to put up there," Glavine said. "He was phenomenal in those types of settings."
Clearly, Smoltz was reveling in the moment of being back there. At 29:30 his speech was longer than Glavine (17:12) and Maddux’s (10:06), combined.
Follow Cory McCartney on Twitter @coryjmccartney