Paul: As Tiger, Smoltz likely never reaches Hall of Fame

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
John Smoltz will be inducted into the Hall of Fame on Sunday.

Cooperstown, N.Y. -- John Smoltz wanted to do two things: Play basketball at Michigan State, and play baseball for the Detroit Tigers.

Neither happened.

And because of that, he's being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday in Cooperstown, along with Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and Craig Biggio.

Smoltz, the pride of Lansing, will be the fourth Michigan native to enter the Hall of Fame, the first since Hal Newhouser (Detroit) in 1992. Charlie Gehringer (Fowlerville) and Kiki Cuyler (Harrisville) were the other two.

Smoltz was a 22nd-round draft pick by the Tigers in 1985, when he already was committed to Michigan State.

Many teams passed him over many times, because it was assumed he couldn't be bought out of his MSU scholarship. But Tigers GM Bill Lajoie OK'd a signing bonus approaching six figures, which is much more than a 22nd-round pick would get today, not even factoring in inflation.

Smoltz and his father, John Sr., a former usher at Tiger Stadium, said OK, and the hard-throwing right-hander was heading to Lakeland, Florida, instead of East Lansing.

The year before he was drafted, his Tigers were celebrating a World Series championship. They still had stars in their prime, like Kirk Gibson, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Jack Morris, Darrell Evans and Lance Parrish.

Smoltz had hoped that in a few years, he'd be helping the Tigers to another title.

But he never got the chance.

It crushed him once upon a time -- but it also changed his life for the better.

It made him a Hall of Famer.

Blessing in disguise

On Aug. 12, 1987, the Tigers were 1.5 games behind the mighty Blue Jays in the old American League East.

And Lajoie was facing a dilemma. The Tigers were an aging ballclub that still had many of the key pieces from the 1984, but not for much longer -- and the rotation was a mess, with Dan Petry, the late Jeff Robinson and Walt Terrell struggling.

John Smoltz retired with a 213-155 record and 154 saves.

So Lajoie went shopping for another starting pitcher, and the Atlanta Braves had one in a 36-year-old, mustachioed journeyman named Doyle Alexander.

Lajoie wanted him, and asked the Braves to pick from a list of Tigers minor-leaguers. To Lajoie's surprise, the Braves wanted 20-year-old Smoltz, who in 1987 had made 21 starts for the Tigers' Double-A affiliate in Glen Falls, New York, and posted these atrocious numbers: 4-10, 5.68 ERA.

The Tigers still liked Smoltz, but they liked the idea of Alexander joining them for a pennant push even better.

So that Aug. 12, the deal was made, and Smoltz's Tigers career was over before he ever threw a pitch for the big league club. It broke his heart that August day, being traded away from his hometown team, to a team in the South that hadn't won a single playoff game since moving from Milwaukee in 1966.

The move paid off for the Tigers in 1987, as Alexander famously went 9-0 with a 1.53 ERA -- and the Tigers needed every one of those wins as Detroit rallied back to win the AL East, beating the Toronto Blue Jays on the final day of the regular season.

The old Tigers lost to the young, upstart Twins in the 1987 American League Championship Series, the next winter Gibson and Petry were gone, Evans and Morris weren't far behind, and Detroit had three winning seasons and zero postseason appearances over the next 18 years.

That could've been Smoltz's future.

Instead, he received a blessing in going to the Braves, who had top-tier pitching instructors that would eventually develop fellow Hall of Famer Tom Glavine, Steve Avery and Kent Mercker, among others.

Hall of Fame career

By 1988, Smoltz was thriving at Triple-A Richmond in Virginia, earning his first call-up. By 1989, he was a full-time member of the Braves rotation.

By 1993, he was a star, one of The Big Three -- Greg Maddux and Glavine were the others -- who were largely responsible for Atlanta's record run of 14 consecutive division titles, from 1991-2005.

John Smoltz spent 21 of his 22 MLB seasons with the Braves.

In all, Smoltz, 48, finished his career with one Cy Young, one World Series championship, eight All-Star appearances, a 213-155 record, 3.33 ERA and 154 saves. He's the only pitcher in baseball history with more than 200 wins and 150 saves, the latter all compiled from 2001-04, having moved to closer after Tommy John surgery.

The trade, stomach churning for so many fans to this day in Detroit, worked out for both teams. The Tigers' window was closing far faster than this current era, and Lajoie knew it, so he made one more push for the postseason, and it worked -- even if Alexander, undefeated as a Tiger in 1987, would lose 19 games the next two years.

Meanwhile, the Braves' brass made a Hall of Famer out of a 22nd-round pick from Lansing Waverly High School.

It's doubtful Smoltz's career would've had anything close to that trajectory had he spent his career with the Tigers, a downward-trending franchise that was notorious for getting cheap when it came to compensating coaches -- minors and majors -- and, thus, had long forfeited its reputation for developing young talent into superstardom.

Even Smoltz has expressed doubts that his career would've turned out so gloriously in the Olde English D, even though that, and the green and white of MSU, were the uniforms he always dreamed of wearing.

Tiger drought continues

This is a Michigan-heavy weekend at the Hall of Fame, where sportswriter Tom Gage and sportscaster Dick Enberg will enter their respective wings in a ceremony Saturday before Smoltz and Co. are honored Sunday.

Smoltz, who spent 21 of his 22 major-league seasons with the Braves, will join longtime rotation mates Glavine and Maddux in the Hall of Fame, as well as his long-time manager Bobby Cox.

Glavine, Maddux and Cox all were inducted last July, and could've been joined by Smoltz had he not decided to play one last season, 2009, which he split between the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals.

In a few years, they should be joined by longtime Braves slugger Chipper Jones.

Jones will give that amazing Braves era -- amazing, even if it only won the one championship -- five Hall of Famers.

The Tigers haven't had a player voted into the Hall of Fame by the writers since Al Kaline in 1980.

Theoretically, Smoltz could've been ending that drought this weekend -- had the Braves never had the brilliant insight to trade for a no-name Double-A pitcher 28 years ago, and had the falling-from-grace Tigers never been so desperate to win one more time.

But we'll never know, for sure.

And today, unlike that day in August 1987, Smoltz is just fine with that.