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Star-studded homecoming for Smoltz

Smoltz has star-studded homecoming

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DETROIT -- Before he boarded his plane and began the trek from Atlanta to Detroit on Sunday night, John Smoltz didn't realize how special it was going to be to come home and compete in the All-Star Game.

There was a time his grandfather would tell former Tigers general managers Jim Campbell and Bill Lajoie how his grandson would one day be playing for them and in the historic stadium he called his place of employment for more than 35 years. Ultimately, the only opportunity Smoltz received to play in Tiger Stadium came during a high school All-Star Game in 1985.

One year before that, he had been there watching his boyhood idols, Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker, bring a World Series championship to Detroit.

Now, 20 years later, with Tiger Stadium simply a relic and Smoltz continuing to earn his place among the game's legends, he is back in his native Michigan looking forward to the joy his parents and other family members will feel watching him participate in Tuesday night's All-Star Game.

"It truly is going to be the greatest opportunity for me of all my All-Star Games," said Smoltz, who will be participating in his seventh Midsummer Classic. "I'm going to take it with pride and try to enjoy it as much as possible."

Smoltz has been the one smiling and proving many wrong throughout the season. Along with the coming home element, this All-Star selection is very special to Smoltz because it comes during the year in which many had doubted him.

Just four months ago, he was at Spring Training fielding daily questions about his conversion from dominant closer back to the starting rotation. Many thought his troublesome 38-year-old elbow would have blown by now. Others questioned the intent.

While the frustration grew, he answered every question with respect. But those words weren't nearly as strong as the actions he displayed while throwing three complete games, including one of the shutout variety, in a four-start span in June.

"I'm doing what I do, I pitch," said Smoltz, whose 131 1/3 innings after 19 starts this year are just 2 2/3 fewer than the total he compiled after the first 19 starts of his 1996 National League Cy Young Award-winning campaign.

"Making the All-Star Game is a great honor. But I think this has become too big of a deal to everybody because of what I've done. I don't think it's a big story. The reason I don't think it's a big deal is because nobody has failed doing what I'm doing. The other side of that is that nobody has succeeded."

All-Star Game 2005

For the conversion to be a complete success, Smoltz still has to finish the second half of the season strong and be available to attempt to continue his postseason dominance. Given that the only aches he's encountered in the season's first three months have not been related to his arm, it seems likely he'll complete the season without any problems.

"Ask me what I'm most proud of from the first half and it's that I didn't miss a start," said Smoltz, who watched three of the other members of Atlanta's starting rotation go to the disabled list with a significant injury this year.

With Mike Hampton, Tim Hudson and John Thomson injured, Smoltz took his game to another level and truly accepted the responsibilities of an ace in June. He lasted at least eight innings in each of his final five starts of that month and watched the Braves win each of the final six games he started before the break.

"This is about me enjoying pitching, and it's working out," Smoltz said.

All of Smoltz's postseason success, dominance as a closer and development into one of the game's best big-game pitchers has benefited the residents of Atlanta. From afar, the people of Detroit had to watch and wonder just what might have been if their Tigers hadn't traded him to the Braves for Doyle Alexander on Aug. 12, 1987.

After helping the Tigers win the 1987 American League East crown that year, Alexander began fizzling in the twilight of his career while Smoltz simply continued to develop into a hurler many think may one day find himself in the Hall of Fame.

Now Smoltz will have at least one more opportunity to display his skills in front of the people of his former hometown. It's an experience he and his family will likely never forget.

"It will just be one of those great moments that I'll appreciate more than people will know," Smoltz said.

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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