The Atlanta Braves traded a veteran right-hander, Doyle Alexander, for a kid named John Smoltz? It was a odd-sounding name, eliciting giggles around the water cooler or on the playground.
That Aug. 12, 1987 transaction quickly went down as one of the best deals in history -- for the Detroit Tigers. They trailed Toronto in the American League East by 1.5 games at the time and were desperate for a veteran arm to help them make a push.Alexander was 9-0 down the stretch with the Tigers, who blew by the Blue Jays en route to a 98-win championship season.
Meanwhile, Smoltz was wrapping up a 4-10 season with a 5.68 ERA at Double-A Glens Falls.The Braves general manager who swung that deal was criticized from here to Valdosta. Apologies have long been due, but if you haven't yet had a chance to offer yours, he shouldn't be hard to find. His name is Bobby Cox. Years ago, Cox recalled the circumstances of a deal that would transform the Braves from perennial 90-game losers into a dynasty -- with him in the managerial seat, of course: "Smoltz was the guy we had to have. At that time, he was nothing except a young kid with a great arm. You can imagine how he would grade out in Double-A ball, with a lousy record and walking everybody. But you look at his fastball, his curveball, athletic ability and his age, you don't give a darn. You say, 'I have to have that guy.' " So, Bobby, how did it turn out? You can tell us either now, or wait until John Smoltz's Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Cooperstown. "For me, he goes in," Cox said early in the 2007 season. "He was dominating as a starter, and he was dominating as a closer. Not too many guys have done that. And [the 15 wins] in the postseason -- not many guys have done as well as him." To Smoltz's list of credentials, we can soon add 3,000 strikeouts -- something else not many guys have done. Fifteen others, to be exact. All are in the Hall of Fame, with the exception of Bert Blyleven and the five others who are still on the mound (which, come to think of it, makes this the 3K-K Golden Era): Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez and, to an uncertain extent, Roger Clemens. So fewer have struck out 3,000 than have won 300 games (23) or collected 3,000 hits (27) or clubbed 500 homers (23, going on Manny Ramirez and Gary Sheffield). And, to dramatize our lead premise, only two of them notched every one of those 3,000-plus strikeouts for one team: Walter Johnson (1907-27 Washington Senators) and Bob Gibson (1959-75 St. Louis Cardinals). Certainly none of those other 15 left their day jobs for an extended detour to the bullpen, primarily because ... well, geez, we're trying to keep winning, and there's no one else to do that job. Up to the minute, Smoltz has made 34 percent of his 704 career appearances in relief, during that 2001-04 period when he served as the Braves' closer. Like everything else since he joined the Braves for good on July 23, 1988, Smoltz did that exceptionally well. In fact, nothing you can say about the man summarizes his impact on two decades of Braves baseball better than this: He holds Atlanta records both for most wins (24) and most saves (55) in a season. He also holds Braves franchise career records in saves (154) and strikeouts. Both records should be mutually exclusive. The brief work shift of the modern closer precludes ringing up significant strikeout totals. The other successful starter to carve out a notable run as a closer, Dennis Eckersely, was also a punch-out artist when he went on relief, with over 1,600 strikeouts. Eck entered the Hall of Fame with a final career total of 2,401. Of course, Eckersley's switch was one way. Smoltz made a U-turn back into the rotation in 2005, which merely compounded the difficulty score of his career profile. Since resuming his day job -- with consistency that borders on the ridiculous, having gone 47-24 since the comeback start on April 5, 2005 -- Smoltz has exposed his arm to some of the attritions from which he had sought refuge in the bullpen. Even now, as he bears down on yet another milestone, Smoltz pitches with a balky shoulder, which alternately tightens up or spasms on him. Ever a bottom-line guy, Smoltz says dismissively, "The good news is I've been able to have success." Actually, the best news is we've been able to continue watching and admiring and being awed by the guy who, 21 years ago, only made us snicker.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.