It was only a matter of time before John Smoltz took his rightful place in the Braves Hall of Fame, and watched his No. 29 go up on the left field façade at Turner Field, alongside those of Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. That time will come June 8.
The club announced Monday that Smoltz’s would become only the ninth Braves jersey number retired. It will be unveiled in a ceremony before the Braves open a three-game series with the Toronto Blue Jays on Friday, June 8 at 7:35 p.m. Smoltz will also be honored at a Hall of Fame luncheon that afternoon.
“For this to happen is an incredible feeling that has yet to sink it…,” Smoltz said Monday. “This is just something that brings to full circle what it means to be in Atlanta and to have played all those years in the Atlanta Braves organization. I bleed the uniform that I wore and hope that I honored it the best way I could.”
Smoltz will be the last of the “Big Three” to have his jersey retired in the past four years, joining his rotation mates and golf buddies Maddux, whose No. 31 went up in 2009, and Glavine, whose No. 47 went up in 2010.
“We had such an incredible run and relationship,” Smoltz said. “…I learned a whole heck of a lot, but I just had a great time. I can’t think of what life would have been like without those two, and really just every pitcher, whether it was (Steve) Avery, (Charlie) Leibrandt, (Kevin) Millwood, Pete Smith, (Denny) Neagle – you name it. We had such a great time competing and having fun.”
If Maddux was the pitching guru, and Glavine the stoic presence, Smoltz was the heart of the rotation, who wore his emotions on his sleeve throughout his career as a starter, a closer and a starter again.
“I don’t know that anybody did anything more uniquely than John in terms of being so good at two different roles,” said Glavine, who is happy to see the Braves try to figure out where to find room on the façade for No. 29, and likely Chipper Jones’ No. 10 in the not-so-distant future. “They’ve just got to keep me on the outside (like where he pitched). They’re running out of room up there. That’s a good thing.”
This jersey ceremony and Hall-of-Fame induction gives Smoltz a chance for a proper exchange with Braves fans after his awkward departure following an injury-riddled 2008 season. Smoltz didn’t have an official retirement announcement or a farewell tour of the league, after finishing his career with the Red Sox and Cardinals in 2009. He returned to Atlanta as a broadcaster in 2010.
“Honestly, that really is what this is about,” Smoltz said. “Those fans from all over, you can never thank them enough for all the support. They rode the roller coaster with me.”
The other numbers retired by the Braves are manager Bobby Cox (6), Dale Murphy (3), Phil Niekro (35), Hank Aaron (44), Eddie Mathews (41), and Warren Spahn (21). Jackie Robinson’s No. 42 is retired throughout major league baseball.
Smoltz originally wore No. 57 when he was first called up in 1988, but he was assigned No. 29 in 1989. Smoltz said he used to want to change numbers, so his would match an achievable win total to shoot for each season. He prized second baseman Mark Lemke’s No. 20 the most. That all changed in Smoltz’s Cy Young season of 1996, with a nod to Braves longtime director of team travel Bill Acree.
“When (I had) 24 wins, four postseason wins and an All-Star win, Bill Acree told me ‘29’ is achievable,” Smoltz said.
Smoltz was an eight-time All-Star in 20 seasons with the Braves, after arriving in a trade from Detroit for Doyle Alexander in August of 1987. He is the only major league pitcher to win at least 200 games and save 150.
While helping the Braves to an unprecedented 14-year postseason run from 1991 to 2005, Smoltz won 15 postseason games, the second-most in history, and struck out a record 199.
Smoltz pitched a complete game to win the division-clincher in 1991, the year the Braves went from worst to first and started the run of 14 straight. The vision of catcher Greg Olson jumping into Smoltz’s arms afterward is not only an iconic photograph for fans. For Smoltz, that moment and that day triggered a desire he had from then on to pitch and succeed in big games. He said he woke up that Oct. 5, 1991 morning realizing that the Dodgers had lost and relished in the opportunity he had that night.
“It really started a string for me of big-game moments that I was fortunate enough to pitch in,” Smoltz said. “I always wanted to be clutch.”
Smoltz delves deeper into that topic in a book he wrote with Don Yaeger which is coming out on May 8 entitled “Starting and Closing: Perseverance, Faith and One More Year.”
Smoltz, now a broadcaster with MLB Network and TBS, will be inducted into the Braves Hall of Fame at a luncheon June 8 at the Omni Hotel, which is adjacent to the CNN Center in downtown Atlanta. For more information, call 404-614-2310.