'Diehard Detroit fan' John Smoltz makes Hall of Fame

Tom Gage
The Detroit News
John Smoltz speaks to the media after his election to the Hall of Fame.

Detroit – He grew up watching games at Tiger Stadium – and being an ardent Tigers fan.

His grandfather worked on the grounds crew at the ol' ballpark for nearly 40 years. His uncle used to handle the manual scoreboard.

When the Tigers won the 1984 World Series, John Smoltz was in the crowd. He was 17 years old, and with "family" help, he dug up a piece of Tiger Stadium sod to plant in his backyard.

To this day, he calls himself "one of the most diehard Detroit fans of all time – and, by the way, I'm still having a hard time with the call with the Lions."

On the same conference call following Tuesday's announcement that he'd been elected to baseball's Hall of Fame – along with pitchers Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and longtime Houston Astro Craig Biggio – Smoltz said he grew up a "Tigers, Red Wings, Pistons, Lions fan."

And when he was selected by the Tigers, albeit in the 22nd round of the 1985 draft, his dream of someday pitching for them suddenly had a chance of coming true.

His first season as a Tigers' prospect, which he spent in 1986 at Lakeland, saw him go 7-8 with a 3.56 ERA. There was no sign then of him being on a fast track to the majors. It took pitching for another organization for that to become a reality.

But the 1986 season was a plus for Smoltz for another reason. To while away the time between starts in Lakeland, he took up golf that year, a sport at which he continues to excel.

Truth be told, he's still an accomplished accordion player as well.

John Smoltz has his jersey retired by the Braves in 2012.

Tigers general manager Bill Lajoie watched Smoltz intently during the spring of 1987. Lajoie knew a good arm when he saw one, but wasn't sure how much time would be needed to refine it.

The eventual decision would be "too much time" for the contending Tigers.

At Double-A Glens Falls in 1987, Smoltz was 4-10 with a 5.68 ERA in 21 starts – and when the opportunity came in August of that year for the Tigers to acquire the veteran Doyle Alexander from Atlanta, it was Smoltz with whom the Tigers parted.

Little did anyone know at the time that the deal would still be discussed more than 27 years later.

Alexander didn't come to Detroit with sterling stats. He was 5-10 with a 4.13 ERA for the Braves. Worse than that, he'd gone 1-9 in his last 10 starts.

No wonder it had cost the Tigers just a struggling Double-A kid to get him.

What both pitchers involved in the deal went on to accomplish is now well known. Alexander went from losing nine of 10 with the Braves to going 9-0 with a 1.53 ERA in his 11 starts for the Tigers.

But they won all 11 of his starts, en route to winning the American League East by two games over Toronto.

For Smoltz, the deal opened a new world where the focus was on development. He said years later that he would not have become the pitcher he did without the deal.

And he added on Tuesday that "it was the greatest opportunity of a lifetime to get traded" – although he was shattered by it at the time.

"It was a veteran ball club that didn't have much room for young pitchers," Smoltz said of the Tigers. "I wasn't fond of the trade when it happened, but I quickly realized how it gave me a chance to pitch at a young age in Atlanta."

On July 23, 1988, after rapid progress at Triple-A Richmond, Smoltz made his major-league debut for the Braves at Shea Stadium in New York. In a 6-1 victory, he held the Mets to a run on four hits in six innings.

The career that game launched led him to triumvirate stardom with Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine in Atlanta. All of them are now Hall of Famers.

"In terms of pure stuff," Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said about Smoltz in a text message Tuesday, "John may have been the best I have ever seen.

"When I would go into Atlanta and face Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz, I knew we were going to make a lot of outs.

"But it was Smoltz that I was worried about embarrassing me."

With 11 strikeouts in 31 career at-bats against Smoltz, the numbers bear that out for Ausmus, who otherwise was not an easy hitter to fan.

Smoltz, who moved from Warren to Lansing after the fourth grade and went to Waverly High School, eventually became the first major-league pitcher to combine more than 150 saves with more than 200 victories. He won the National League's Cy Young Award with a 24-8 record for Atlanta in 1996.

Six years later, he saved 55 games for the Braves.

Alexander was in his seventh season of being retired by 1996. He pitched two more years following his 9-0 stretch run in 1987, but after going 6-18 for the Tigers in 1989, despite a 3-0 start, that was it. He was done.

The trade had served its purpose, though. It gave the Tigers a chance to win it all again before the drought of not playing another postseason game until 2006 set in.

For Smoltz – as much as he didn't like leaving the Tigers at the time – it was the beginning of a glorious ride that culminated on Tuesday with 82.9 percent of the vote.


(549 votes cast, 412 needed for election)

Randy Johnson 534 (97.3 percent)

Pedro Martinez 500 (91.1)

John Smoltz 455 (82.9)

Craig Biggio 454 (82.7)

Mike Piazza 384 (69.9)

Jeff Bagwell 306 (55.7)

Tim Raines 302 (55.0)

Curt Schilling 215 (39.2)

Roger Clemens 206 (37.5)

Barry Bonds 202 (36.8)

Lee Smith 166 (30.2)

Edgar Martinez 148 (27.0)

Alan Trammell 138 (25.1)

Mike Mussina 135 (24.6)

Jeff Kent 77 (14.0)

Fred McGriff 71 (12.9)

Larry Walker 65 (11.8)

Gary Sheffield 64 (11.7)

Mark McGwire 55 (10.0)

* Don Mattingly 50 (9.1)

Sammy Sosa 36 (6.6)

Nomar Garciaparra 30 (5.5)

By receiving fewer than 27 votes (less than 5 percent), these players no longer eligible for consideration by BBWAA: Carlos Delgado 21 (3.8), Troy Percival 4 (0.7), Aaron Boone and Tom Gordon 2 (0.4), Darin Erstad 1 (0.2) and Rich Aurilia, Tony Clark, Jermaine Dye, Cliff Floyd, Brian Giles, Eddie Guardado and Jason Schmidt 0.

* -- Final year on ballot; eligible for consideration by the Expansion Era Committee in 2017.

Associated Press contributed