John Smoltz at home at Hall of Fame

Written by: Bill Francis

Exactly four weeks after being elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, John Smoltz was at the Cooperstown shrine soaking in exactly what membership in the sport’s most exclusive fraternity means.

“This is a pretty incredible place filled with some elite people, and it’s hard to feel like you’re part of that,” said Smoltz, dressed casually in blue jeans and a gray sweater, at a Tuesday morning press conference held inside the Hall’s Plaque Gallery. “I think the biggest thing is that when I walk in this room I may not have the most eye-popping stats, but I have one of the most unique careers.”

At home in Cooperstown

Smoltz and wife Kathryn were in Cooperstown, having travelled from their home outside Atlanta, for their Orientation Visit, an annual rite for all living inductees in preparation for their Induction Ceremony. On Jan. 6, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America announced the Hall of Fame elections of not only Smoltz but also fellow pitchers Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez, as well as second baseman Craig Biggio. Smoltz received 82.9 percent of the vote in his first year on the ballot. The Induction Ceremony featuring the four electees will be held on Sunday, July 26 at the Clark Sports Center.

Smoltz was a dominant starting pitcher for the Atlanta Braves when the franchise was a perennial postseason participant, but arm injuries led to his “uniqueness” and a new role as a one of the game’s top closers. Finishing with a 213-155 career won-loss record, he’s the only big league pitcher to record both 200 wins and 150 saves. Along the way, he eight-time All-Star was the winner of 14-or-more games 10 times, highlighted by his 24-8 record in 1996 and NL Cy Young Award.

“Numbers are numbers, stats are stats, but I think everyone has that story and for me it just goes all the way back to Lansing, Michigan, and all the grinding and playing. I just loved it,” Smoltz said. “Trying to win a championship, for me, was the forefront of everything I did. To one day be enshrined in the Hall of Fame, it just doesn’t make sense, because the reality is I never did anything to get into the Hall of Fame, but my career ended up becoming a Hall of Fame career, if that makes sense, and that’s where it’s very humbling.

“I’ve been called everything, crazy, underachieving, you name it, but when you wrap it all in together and you see how many surgeries I had and what I had to do and how many arm angles, I think people start appreciating. But now there will be a ‘HOF’ that I will probably sign for the rest of my life. That’s pretty unique.”

A Museum filled with memories

Prior to meeting with the media, Smoltz and his wife went on a tour of the Museum guided by Hall of Fame Vice President of Exhibitions and Collections Erik Strohl. Inquisitive throughout, the 47-year-old right-hander commented on a 19th century catcher’s mask (“It looks like it’s from the movie ‘The Man in the Iron Mask”), an exhibit case dedicated to Cy Young (“He’s the only one who has never won a Cy Young”), an image of fellow righty Jim Palmer (“As a kid I was probably more similar to Jim Palmer with my high leg kick”) and an exhibit of baseballs similar to the cover of Ted Williams’ book “The Science of Hitting” (“He’s one guy I would have liked to have seen play”).

When Smoltz passed a photo of Roberto Clemente, he said, “For me, the most important trophy I have is the Roberto Clemente Award. It lasts forever.” Smoltz was presented the award in 2005, which is given to a player combining good play and strong work in the community.

John Smoltz visits a Museum exhibit dedicated to the 1990s Braves, including a jersey worn by 1991 National League MVP Terry Pendleton. (Milo Stewart, Jr. / National Baseball Hall of Fame)

Smoltz was a member of the 1991 Braves, a worst-to-first season in which Atlanta lost an epic seven-game World Series title to the Minnesota Twins. The ’91 Fall Classic is arguably most remembered for Jack Morris’ 10-inning masterpiece in Game 7, shutting out the Braves, 1-0, where Smoltz tossed 7 1/3 scoreless innings in Atlanta’s heartbreaking loss.

“I just knew what I was up against having seen him pitch for years and years for Detroit,” said Smoltz, born and raised in Michigan, when passing an exhibit that included Morris. “It was a great series. It was awesome.”

When the tour headed to the Museum’s basement for the collection’s storage area, Smoltz was able to see a pair of cleats he had donated from his 200th career win, as well as the bat Braves teammate David Justice used to homer in 1995’s deciding World Series Game 6, and a cap from Braves teammate Rafael Furcal’s 2003 unassisted triple play.

Dream becomes reality

Then it was on to Smoltz sharing his thoughts with the media on his two-hour excursion through the game’s long history.

“For the rest of my life I will try to get as much of that information embedded in my head,” Smoltz said. “I can honestly say that when you’ve played baseball as long as I did, your whole focus is to play baseball. I’ve always had a great appreciation for the guys before me but never really had that much knowledge about the whole history of the game. Now I’m sure there will be a lot of note-taking, a lot of history that I want to catch up on. To know that I’ll be part of it is something still that has yet to … I don’t know, it just hasn’t set in yet.

“We’re seen enough movies, whether it does it justice or not, of different times and eras, but just putting yourself in a different time and era and seeing what that was like with the artifacts is pretty incredible,” he added. “I always knew the evolution of the equipment was going to be what it is, but to actually see the faces and names of the greatest players of those eras and that timeframe and how they had to go about their business is pretty incredible.”

Smoltz had been to Cooperstown in 2004 as a member of a Braves team that played against the Twins in the Hall of Fame Game. His most recent visit came in 2014 as a broadcaster working for MLB Network covering the Induction Ceremony that included former Braves teammates Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, as well as his former Braves manager, Bobby Cox.

“Last year, it was almost like a little slice of heaven for me because here I was working, covering the guys I knew and obviously meant so much to me,” Smoltz said. “I didn’t have much to do before I left the next day, so I went by myself to go play golf and played 18 holes. It was time to think, ‘What if?’ and ‘What will next year be like?’

“Then when it was over I was hungry, so I decided to just walk into town totally forgetting that everybody here is here for baseball and they know who you are. And I thought I would have this quiet meal,” he said with a laugh, “and the people were great, but of course they were all around. The opportunity to come back here every year will be a major goal of mine and it will be a date that I will keep as much as possible completely clean to be part of this. I’ve told everybody since last year if you’re one-tenth of a baseball fan, you have to make this a destination. You have to go one time and see what this place is like.”

Getting ready for July

When asked about his expectations for his Induction Ceremony this summer, Smoltz said, “Pedro’s (Martinez) got a whole country of support. I feel like I have a whole country of support just with my family and friends. Because I’ve been in Atlanta my whole life there’s been such an outpouring of support. For a long time I thought blind optimism, everybody I ever talked to, ‘You’re a shoe-in. You’re going to make it.’ I don’t think they recognize what this place is and how filled with greatness it is.

“What do I think it’s going to be like? My family, I just hope they can all make it. I plan on doing a lot of special things between now and then to make it special and give as many people their due as possible without having to spend that much time saying it in a speech, I want it to be personal.”

Led by the “Big Three” of Smoltz, Maddux and Glavine, the postseason would became quite familiar for Atlanta. Smoltz would became the only Braves player to be part of the franchise’s historic run of 14 consecutive division titles (in completed seasons) from 1991 to 2005.

“When I reflect back I certainly know that no one will ever beat it. That will be something that no one will ever do. I am still frustrated that we only won one,” Smoltz said. “As a player I’ve been given an opportunity to do something every player would dream of doing but the frustration and gut-wrenching defeats were sometimes … I think about this past Super Bowl, holy cow, I can’t even imagine, can’t even imagine, for outside people, they’ll scrutinize and second guess and talk about that for years to come. And we had many of those.

“But I’ve said this and I’ll say this until I can’t say it anymore: If you go back and give me a time machine and you let me become either a Marlin or a Twin or a Blue Jay or let me become a Brave, knowing the outcome, meaning those three teams only went twice and won twice, I’d still take the Braves because to me I would have rather taken on fate that something might change in 14 straight years rather than just say I only got two years to do that. I know what sports has turned into, I know it’s about championships, but what we did set baseball in a way where everyone is trying to do just one-fourth of that. The fact that we won our division 14 straight years is pretty cool.”

Bill Francis is a library associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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