Braves fans have seen John Smoltz glare with intensity, pump his fist in excitement, and even grit his teeth in pain, but the most emotional of the Braves “Big Three” pitchers sat in silence as his No. 29 was unveiled Friday night at Turner Field.
About the most Smoltz offered when his moment came and during the minute-long ovation that followed was licking of the lips and swallowing as he turned back from looking at his jersey number on the left field façade to the home plate area.
“I wanted that to be the cool moment,” Smoltz said shortly after becoming only the ninth Brave to have his jersey retired. “I didn’t want that to be anything other than that’s the coolest thing that’s happened to me. When I saw the jersey (number) it just made me realize that everything had come full circle.”
Smoltz had done nothing during his 20 years with the Braves, if not finish the job.
He pitched a complete game to clinch the division in 1991 and hoist catcher Greg Olson in his arms, celebrating their worst-to-first run. He took the mound in Game 7s in the 1991 World Series against Jack Morris and the 1992 National League Championship Series the night Sid Bream slid.
He spent three years as a closer to fill out a Hall-of-Fame worthy resume, becoming the only pitcher in history to win 200 or more games and save 150.
But until Friday Smoltz hadn’t had closure with the Braves, leaving after the 2008 season for Boston and eventually St. Louis, as a 42-year-old pitcher coming off shoulder surgery. He never announced his retirement at the end of the 2009 season.
Smoltz got his moment Friday, though, when the Braves inducted him into their Hall of Fame and retired No. 29, just to the left of Greg Maddux’s No. 31, Tom Glavine’s No. 47 and manager Bobby Cox’s No. 6.
“The way it ended is all in the rearview mirror now,” Smoltz said after being inducted into the Braves Hall of Fame at a luncheon at the Omni Hotel, later calling the end of his career “a mulligan.” “I’m an Atlanta Brave. I bleed the uniform.”
He first wore a Richmond Braves uniform in 1987, after the Braves traded for the 20-year-old “wild buck” fresh out of Double-A with the Tigers for Doyle Alexander.
The Braves knew they had something special, long before their fans had any clue. Cox, who traded for Smoltz as the general manager and then managed him for 20 years, told the story at Friday’s luncheon of a conversation he had with Braves scout John Hagemann the night Smoltz made his last Double-A start for the Tigers in Glens Falls, NY.
“He said, ‘Bobby there’s no way they’re going to trade this kid,’” Cox recalled. “I said ‘Why not? We’re giving them a good guy.’ He said, ‘No. 1 he’s going to be an All-Star player. No. 2 he’s going to be a 20-game winner and No. 3 he’s going to win a Cy Young.’ I said ‘Boy we’ve got our work cut out, don’t we.’”
As a Brave, Smoltz went to the All-Star game eight times, went 24-8 in 1996 and won a Cy Young award that same year. He joined Maddux and Glavine to make the Braves “Big Three” of the 1990s one of the greatest rotations in the game’s history.
Where Maddux used guile and Glavine the outside corner, Smoltz thrived on the mid-90s fastball, the devastating slider and the “stuff” to keep even those two teammates on the edge of their dugout seats.
“Every time he went to the mound there was always a chance for a no-hitter,” Maddux said. “You didn’t know if he was going to strike out 15, maybe throw a no-hitter, or just give up two runs and win. You never knew how he was going to do it, but you knew he was going to pitch good.”
Smoltz was also the most outwardly emotional of the three and the one who seemed to connect most to the fans. One longtime Braves fan who became Smoltz’s close friend – comedian Jeff Foxworthy – called Smoltz the “heartbeat” of those 1990s teams, at Friday’s luncheon.
“He was part goofy kid and part warrior, but he always wanted the ball,” Foxworthy said. “And we wanted him to have the ball when it was on the line. And he’d sit there and glare at the batter like the batter had just peed in his mother’s purse.”
Cox knew that glare too, whenever he would come for the ball.
“Not many people know John Smoltz was the most stubborn pitcher I ever managed,” Cox said. “He never ever wanted to come out of a ballgame. He would have 137 pitches in the eighth inning, and I would come up to him to shake his hand, and he would say, ‘Bobby I’m pitching the ninth.’ I said ‘John that’s a lot of pitches. He said, tell ‘(Pitching coach) Leo (Mazzone) to stop counting the dang pitches.’”
By the time Smoltz finished his career, he had thrown 52,465 pitches. And that’s not including the 3,250 he threw in the postseason.
Smoltz doesn’t need a count now either to know what he accomplished.
“My shoulder went as far as it could go,” he said Friday to the 930 fans and Braves players and staff at the luncheon.
Smoltz had one last pitch in him Friday night, a four-seam fastball to Brian McCann for the ceremonial first pitch. Vintage Smoltz, just getting out there on the mound got the adrenaline flowing, so he told McCann not to go down in a crouch.
“I told Brian, ‘Please stand up,’” Smoltz said. “’I don’t want to be tempted to pull a Nolan Ryan in the World Series and throw 85 (mph) cheese down the middle.”