For all his Hall-of-Fame success, the career of John Smoltz may have been best captured in the 1987 season when he found himself lost in the foothills of the Adirondacks.
The Atlanta Braves legend says he never had a stretch of nine or 10 straight years where everything clicked. No, he became the pitcher he did “because of the struggle” — or, rather, overcoming the struggle.
And, oh, how he struggled with the Glens Falls Tigers.
He was kid who did not turn 20 until that May, pitching for the organization he rooted for growing up in Michigan. But he was hardly living a boyhood dream: In that Class AA Eastern League season at East Field, the future dominant major league starter and closer went 4-10 with an ERA over 5.00.
“I was having a miserable year,” he said Thursday in a conference call in advance of his July 26 induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. (He’s going in with Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson and Craig Biggio.) “I didn’t know which way was up.”
At the time, the Tigers’ organization was no place for a young pitcher. They changed his delivery, for one thing, and told him to ditch the curve. And then there was the day-to-day coaching — or lack thereof.
“We didn’t have a pitching coach in Detroit. We had rovers,” he said. “I basically had to figure it out by myself . . . I was in a mechanical funk.”
“And then the trade happened.”
On Aug. 12, 1987, the Tigers and Braves made one of those deals that worked out for both teams, although in the immediate aftermath you’d have thought Detroit had fleeced Atlanta: The Braves sent veteran pitcher Doyle Alexander to the Tigers in exchange for Smoltz.
Although he was Glens Falls' assistant general manager, it fell to Phil Kahn to drive Smoltz down the Northway from Glens Falls to Albany International Airport after the trade.
“We only had two full-time staff members,” the Wilton man recalled. “Everybody did everything. It wasn’t like driving players to the airport was beneath me.”
Kahn said the trade initially left the native son of Michigan bewildered and bummed.
“He always grew up dreaming of pitching for the Detroit Tigers,” Kahn said. “He was surprised — very disappointed. He was pretty subdued and trying to take it in stride.”
Smoltz said Thursday his dream was to be a big-league pitcher more than to pitch for the Tigers, but “it took about 48 hours” for him to view the trade as an opportunity.
Meanwhile, in 11 starts the rest of that 1987 season, Alexander went 9-0 with a 1.53 ERA, leading Detroit to the American League East crown. Detroit got what it wanted.
Smoltz reported to AAA Richmond, where he continued to struggle. “I was nowhere near the pitcher I needed to be,” he said.
But work in the offseason Instructional League under famed Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone began to turn John Smoltz into John Smoltz.
Kahn said it was always hard to tell in the minors which players would make it, but anyone could tell at the time Smoltz had the tools to be a big leaguer.
“Throw the numbers away. They don’t mean anything,” he said. “You could tell he had great stuff.
“It was just a matter of harnessing that talent.”
Smoltz made it to the big leagues in 1988, going 2-7 in 12 starts with a 5.48 ERA and WHIP of 1.672. Alexander made the All-Star team for the first (and only) time in his career.
The trade still seemed lopsided.
But, like Kahn said, the kid just had to harness that talent. The next year Smoltz would be an All-Star, the first of eight times he would be named to the squad. He had double-digit wins in each of the next 11 seasons except for the strike-shortened 1994 campaign.
Then came a World Series title, and a Cy Young Award. John Smoltz-Greg Maddux-Tom Glavine became the most dominant starting trio in baseball. (Maddux and Glavine entered the Hall last year.)
After a 2000 season lost to Tommy John surgery — Smoltz will be the first pitcher in the Hall to have undergone the procedure — he emerged as a reliever, and recorded a league-high 55 saves two seasons later. He would later return to the starting rotation.
When his unique career ended in 2009, he had amassed 213 wins, 154 saves, and finished 16th all-time in strikeouts.
“I had to reinvent myself many, many times,” he said.
Looking back on the 1987 trade, Smoltz said despite his initial despair, “the timing couldn’t have been more perfect.”
And the struggle? In the end, overcoming it proved worth it, as he finds himself heading back Upstate, this time to Cooperstown.