John, Cox key to Smoltz's call to Hall
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Had John Smoltz not received a call from Tommy John nearly 15 years ago, he might not have gained the distinction that awaits him on Sunday afternoon, when he will officially become the first player inducted into Baseball's Hall of Fame after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
The festivities begin with bonus coverage of the Spink and Frick Awards on MLB Network and MLB.com at 11 a.m. ET, with a special edition of MLB Tonight beginning at noon live from Cooperstown. The quartet will be inducted during a ceremony that will begin at 1:30 p.m.
Smoltz received this call as he attempted to return from this elbow surgery during the 2001 season, one in which his struggles as a starting pitcher transitioned him toward his brief stretch as a dominant closer. His frustration led him to contemplate retirement until he received some motivation from John, whose name is attached to this surgery because of the extended success he had after undergoing it in 1974.
"[John] called me and said, 'I'm telling you, don't [retire], you've got a lot of career left," Smoltz said. "He was saying he pitched for 11 years [after the surgery] and it motivated me to go through the process. There wasn't as much history then as there is today. It's a no-brainer today as far as success rate, and I'm glad for it."
When Smoltz delivers his Hall of Fame induction speech on Sunday afternoon, he will spend some time addressing parents about some of the current practices that have influenced the fact that more young pitchers are now undergoing this elbow surgery. At the same time, he will reflect on the significance of playing nearly all of his career with former Braves manager and fellow Hall of Famer Bobby Cox.
Cox was the Braves general manager who pulled the trigger on the 1987 Doyle Alexander trade that brought Smoltz, then a Tigers Minor League prospect, to Atlanta. He was also the manager who stuck with Smoltz through a rough start to the memorable 1991 season and then gave him the confidence that he could handle the closing role late in the 2001 season. Four years later, the beloved skipper welcomed his determined pitcher back to the starting rotation and consequently allowed this unique career to legitimately become Hall of Fame-worthy.
"There's no chance I would have had a 20-year-career with Atlanta, I would have been somewhere else had it not been for Bobby," Smoltz said.
After Smoltz spent the second half of the 2001 season distancing himself from Tommy John surgery and transitioning to a role in the Braves bullpen, the Yankees offered him more money and the chance to serve as a starting pitcher. But the desire to continue playing for Cox in Atlanta led him to become the Braves closer and total the second-most saves (144) in the Majors from 2002-04.
"I knew [more money] wasn't going to guarantee me my happiness," Smoltz said. "I gave up a lot of money to stay with the Braves four different times and I don't regret any second of it. When you know who you play for and you'd run through a wall for a guy [Cox], the environment was so perfect for me and my family that even changing roles, which was something I didn't want to do in the beginning, became as good as it could be."
After Smoltz compiled 154 saves in the 169 opportunities he garnered from 2001-04, he gained his wish to rejoin Atlanta's rotation because he felt it was in the team's best interest. He posted a 3.28 ERA in the 68 starts he made over the next two seasons and in the process helped the Braves win the last of their 14 consecutive division titles in 2005.
Smoltz, who is the only Major League pitcher to ever record both 200 wins and 150 saves, stands as the lone Braves player who was in the organization throughout that run of division dominance. He still regrets the fact that Atlanta proved successful in just one of its five trips to the World Series during this span. But he doesn't regret any of the other paths he encountered during this unique journey to Cooperstown.
"If I truly wanted to make the Hall of Fame selfishly, I'd have never left the bullpen," Smoltz said. "I just would have stayed there and gotten who knows how many more saves. I was not about that. I wanted to win a championship. We won one, but we should have won more."