In 2001, a year after Tommy John surgery, the career of John Smoltz was at a crossroads, or at least so we thought.
In reality it was entering a new phase that would make him a lock for Cooperstown.
A year later Smoltz became the greatest closer to ever wear an Atlanta Braves uniform by sheer brute force.
Smoltz took his move to the bullpen as a challenge, and a challenge he was going to meet head on. His teammates, and those of us in the media who covered him, knew that he was going to be successful as a closer.
What we did not know was just how successful he would be.
In 2002, his first full year as a closer, Smoltz set a National League record with 55 saves. A year later, still battling injuries, he notched 45 and then 44 in 2004.
Too many times, in covering sports team, we get sound bites and quotes that mean nothing. Player hit us with a flood of clichés being careful of not stepping on teammates, coaches or the front office. Smoltz was not like that. He spoke truthfully, sometimes too much so. He would frequently stand in front of this locker after a game and talk to reporters when many would hide in the areas off limits.
He always knew being a starter was his calling, and he was never shy in letting the media know his intentions. Some doubt was raised that he could transition from the bullpen back a starter after the '04 season, and he was out to prove them wrong.
I don’t remember when it was. It could have been at the end of 2004 in the Braves locker room or during spring training of 2005 at Disney, but while holding a microphone at his locker along with the gaggle of reporters, I suddenly realized that Smoltz was calling out the Braves front office. He could become a starter again, damn it, regardless of what they thought.
Boy was he right.
He won 14 games in ’05, 16 in ’06. The Braves picked up his $8 million contract option in September of 2006, and in April of 2007 they offered him a contract extension. Smoltz went on to a 14-8 mark in 2007 with an ERA of 3.11. He would never have another dominate season in the majors, but the fact that he won 53 games after he walked away from the bullpen, just shows how much of a man he was. In his final regular season start, with the St. Louis Cardinals in August of 2009, Smoltz set a St. Louis franchise record of seven consecutive strikeouts. This is the franchise, mind you, of Bob Gibson.
But it takes more than just looking up stats or box scores to find out how great he was. If you have the MLB App, you can watch “classics” from past years in baseball. One of the games on the app is the famed seventh game of the 1991 World Series; many feel the greatest World Series game of all time. Braves vs Twins, Smoltz vs Jack Morris. Take the time to watch that game and watch Smoltz pitch his 7.1 scoreless innings. He was spectacular. Problem was, Morris was just a little bit better.
John Smoltz finished his career with the most wins ever by a Braves pitcher in a season (24) and the only pitcher with 200 wins and 150 saves (213-154). He also was 15-and-4 in 41 postseason games including 7-0 in the NLDS.
No, he did not win 300 games, he did not have over 4,000 strikeouts (3,084) nor did he have 400 saves.
But, he was the most fierce competitor I ever saw don a uniform. Sunday John Smoltz gets what he deserves, and I am glad I was around to see it happen.