John Smoltz's career got off to a rocky start.
By the time he was done, it was good enough to ensure no one ever wears his number again for the Atlanta Braves.
The team announced Monday that No. 29 will be retired and Smoltz will be inducted into the Braves Hall of Fame at Turner Field. The honours will take place during ceremonies on June 8, before the Braves begin a weekend series against the Toronto Blue Jays.
“I always wanted to be clutch,” said Smoltz, who won numerous big games over his 20-plus years with the Braves.
He is the only pitcher with at least 200 wins and 150 saves. Smoltz spent nearly his entire career with the Braves before a bitter breakup led to him dividing his final season between Boston and St. Louis in 2009. But he's made amends with the Atlanta organization, says the city will be his lifelong home and is seen frequently around the ballpark in his new role as a broadcaster for TBS and the MLB Network.
The right-hander will be the ninth Braves player to have his number retired by the team, joining two other pitchers who helped Atlanta win a record 14 straight division titles in the 1990s and 2000s — Greg Maddux (31) and Tom Glavine (47).
“We had such an incredible run and relationship,” Smoltz said. “Those guys I played with are sure-fire Hall of Famers. They knew how to win baseball games. I learned a whole heck of a lot from them and just had a great time playing with them. I can't think of what life would've been like without those two.”
At the beginning, Smoltz had to overcome some significant setbacks.
The Michigan native was drafted by his favourite team, the Detroit Tigers, only to be traded to the Braves in 1987 while he was still a minor leaguer. The deal, which sent veteran Doyle Alexander to Detroit, helped the Tigers seal an AL East title.
But it eventually paid much bigger dividends for the Braves.
“So many things happened for me that turned out for the best, but I didn't know it at the time,” Smoltz said. “That trade was devastating in my life. At the time, there was nothing worse that could've happened to me. Obviously, it was just a blip in my life. But when you're 20 and you're getting traded for the first time, you can't imagine what goes through your mind when you feel like you're not wanted by someone.”
Then, in 1991, he had a bitter contract dispute with the Braves, actually walking out of spring training for a couple of days, and got off to a 2-11 start that threatened his spot in the rotation. But Smoltz bounced back, going 12-2 the rest of the way, including a complete game that clinched the NL West championship and capped an improbable worst-to-first season for the Braves.
Smoltz said walking out on the team and pitching the first half of the season with a chip on his shoulder were perhaps the only things he would change if he do it all over again. He credited Cox for sticking with him through the tough times.
“Those actions were not reflective of the person I was. That was the hardest thing I ever had to do. I hated it. And, ultimately, it didn't get me anywhere,” Smoltz said. “I obviously suffered the wrath for my mistakes in the first half of that season. I had an 'I'll show you' mentality. I learned that's not the way to go about it.”
The ‘91 season marked the beginning of Atlanta's unprecedented run of division titles, which was highlighted by a lone World Series title in 1995. While the Braves became known for their playoff flops, Smoltz went 15-4 with a 2.67 ERA and four saves in 41 post-season games.
His best season was 1996, when he went 24-8 with a 2.94 ERA and won the NL Cy Young Award. But he is remembered more for his conversion from starter to closer in 2001, a move that was designed to relieve the stress on his elbow coming off major surgery. He wound up becoming one of the top relievers in the game, with a franchise-record 55 saves in his first full season handling the role.
Then, he moved back to the starting rotation, going 44-24 over three seasons before persistent injuries finally ended his career.
“I was not the strongest and I was not the fastest,” Smoltz said. “But I was the most determined and the most dedicated. I always thought of myself as the most competitive guy on the field.”
Smoltz finished a career record of 213-155, 154 saves and a 3.33 ERA, numbers that might be good enough to land him an even bigger honour — induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown.
“John has contributed so much to Atlanta Braves history,” said team President John Schuerholz, who was general manager during most of Smoltz's career. “Inducting him into our Hall of Fame and making sure no one else will ever wear his number 29, are the most meaningful and significant ways we can honour John.”