Hall inductee Smoltz reflects on life-altering calls

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Cooperstown, N.Y. — John Smoltz said three phone calls changed his life.

The first came in 1985, when his hometown Tigers made him a 22nd-round draft pick. The last came in January, when he was told he'd just been voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The middle one?

That came in August 1987, when the Tigers told Smoltz he was being traded to the Braves.

"That was the most significant game-changer for me," Smoltz said Saturday afternoon, on the eve of his induction into the Hall of Fame.

"I had a mindset and a dream that I was gonna make it. I know I would've with any organization, but to get an opportunity at a young age with the Braves ..."

Smoltz was traded as a 20-year-old for veteran Doyle Alexander, the pitcher who went 9-0 for the Tigers and helped them win the American League East by one game over the Blue Jays. It was a short-term win for Detroit.

It was a long-term win for Atlanta, starting in July 1988, less than one year after he was traded, when he made his debut for the Braves.

He never would've had the opportunity to debut so soon with the Tigers, who still were contenders in 1988, but with the Braves, the opportunity was all his.

And Smoltz rolled with it, becoming the first pitcher ever to win 200 games and save 150 games. He'll be inducted into the Hall of Fame with two other amazing pitchers — Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez — as well as Craig Biggio.

Smoltz will join longtime rotation mates Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, inducted last year, in the Hall of Fame. Interestingly, the Alexander trade also opened up a spot in the rotation for Glavine in 1987, and the rest is history.

"You're probably never gonna see it again, a rotation where guys stick together for 10 years," said Smoltz, 48. "I don't know what it'd be like if I didn't have those guys as teammates."

Smoltz, Glavine and Maddux were kings of the hill in Atlanta for a majority of the franchise's 14-year run of National League East championships.

Smoltz wasn't always sure he'd be around so long.

In fact, at the age of 32, he thought he was done when he was eating one day and couldn't even get his arm to lift his fork. He wasn't sure he'd pitch again. He wasn't sure surgery could do anything to get him back.

Then, the phone rang. It was Tommy John, namesake of the most famous surgery in sports.

"I almost quit," Smoltz said. "He had it, the same surgery at the same age, and he pitched 11 more years. It was a much-needed phone call to get me over the top."

Smoltz had the surgery and spent all of 2000 rehabbing, "busting my butt."

The Braves welcomed him back in 2001, but with a twist. He was to become their new closer, in part because they needed a closer, and in part because it would limit the wear and tear on his arm. After starting, exclusively, for the first the first 12 years of his career — and doing it very well, winning the Cy Young in 1996 — he was headed to the bullpen.

And from 2002-04, he was one of the game's best closers, saving 144 games.

In 2005, Smoltz went back to the rotation and he thrived again, winning 44 games from 2005-07, before retiring after the 2009 season split between the Red Sox and Cardinals. That was the only one of his 21 seasons not spent with the Braves.

No surprise, there's going to be a special shout-out in Smoltz's speech during Sunday's ceremonies, scheduled to start around noon.

"Talking about Tommy John," said Smoltz, "is important to me."

Smoltz, after all, will become the first Tommy John surgery patient to make the Hall of Fame.

Smoltz grew up in Metro Detroit before the family moved to Lansing, where he was a three-sport star at Waverly High School. He was all set to go to Michigan State, to play baseball and basketball, before the Tigers drafted him in 1985.

They made him a bonus offer he couldn't refuse, so he passed up MSU, albeit to play for his favorite team growing up, the Tigers.

But two years later, the Tigers dealt him away — and the rest is history.

Some 200 friends and family are expected in the crowd Sunday to hear Smoltz's speech, including actor and pal Jeff Foxworthy and a bunch of folks from Lansing. Smoltz, after all, still gets home plenty, especially for big MSU basketball and football games.

"They've had tremendous support for me," said Smoltz, who finished his career 213-155 with a 3.33 ERA and 154 saves. "I don't think it's possible to have a bigger army than I've had. The support I've felt from home in Lansing and Atlanta has been unbelievable.

"I just wish I could be with each and every one of them."