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Honors aside, Avery perhaps best of Fab Four

Lefty was member of 1993 Braves rotation with Glavine, Smoltz, Maddux

COOPERSTOWN , N.Y. -- They'll be together again in about two months, just as they were 21 summers ago when they were the Fab Four and the envy of every other big league franchise. They'll gather in Cooperstown, not far from where Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux will become minted members on July 27.

This is about the previous day, though, the Saturday morning of Induction Weekend, the day before all the pomp, circumstance and speeches, the day they get to remember what brought them together. The day they get to be a foursome again.

The foursome is the two 2014 HOF inductees and John Smoltz, who, chances are, will join Glav and Mad Dog in the Hall in 2015. And the "fourth" is Steve Avery, who was the best of them on the mound before his shoulder betrayed him.

Come the morning of July 26, few of those obstacles and detours will matter. In fact, baseball will not necessarily be the focus of the conversation. The Fab Four will be together smiling and putting, laughing and bogeying, enjoying each other, hoping their claims of success on the links won't be challenged by an old buddy's keen memory.

"Golf was good for us," Avery said Saturday morning. "We all loved it. In Spring Training, if it wasn't a day to pitch, we'd play 18 holes, even 36. It was so good for us."

Avery smiled as he recalled some of the moments he still treasures. He was in Cooperstown on Saturday, among a collection of former big league players who had been invited to attend the annual Hall of Fame Classic weekend, including Steve Garvey, Pedro Martinez, Hideki Matsui, Vinny Castilla, Jim Thome, Ivan Rodriguez, Mike Sweeney, Reggie Sanders, Edgardo Alfonzo and other high-profile players. Most of them participated in an abridged game between teams captained by Hall of Famers Ozzie Smith and Phil Niekro and coached by Eddie Murray, Roberto Alomar, Rollie Fingers and Andre Dawson.

Avery, 44, was comfortable among his peers and pleased to be in their company. He represented the Braves, his team from 1990-96, a club for which he won 47 games in a three-season sequence, 1991-93, and produced one of the most dazzling postseason series ever by a pitcher.

"I'm very proud of what I did in the postseason," Smoltz said by phone Saturday. "But Steve was better than all of us when he came up. He pitched two of the greatest games in one [postseason] series I've ever seen. He won two 1-0 games against a team that could hit."

Smoltz was referring to Avery's starts against the Pirates in the 1991 National League Championship Series. He pitched 8 1/3 innings and eight innings against a batting order that included Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla and Andy Van Slyke.

"[Avery] could be that dominating," Smoltz said. "He was young and absolutely unafraid. He'd attack everybody.

"But so much of what he did goes unnoticed now because his career was cut short by injury. I know Clayton Kershaw is not from this planet, but Steve was that level of pitcher before his shoulder gave out."

* * * *

Thoughts of what could have been come from Smoltz and other members of those young and successful Braves teams, not from Avery himself. His prowess as a pitcher was such that, if not for injury, he, too, might have been part of the celebration planned for Cooperstown during the final weekend of July.

Avery was hardly the fourth man in the Braves' rotation in 1993. Glavine, Maddux, Smoltz and Avery combined to produce a 75-33 record in 142 starts. Avery's numbers included an 18-6 record and 2.94 ERA in 35 starts.

"I had my moments. I did my part. I was part of a special team that had two guys who won 300 games and had amazing careers," said Avery. "And John had a great career, too. ...

"We were all together. We weren't good at first, but we got good together and that formed a bond. A lot of it was Bobby [Cox, also being inducted in July]. He was the perfect blend of what a manager should be and made it easier for all of us. And we had so much talent."

Avery spoke of Cox with unabashed reverence, recalling the 1995 World Series.

"A lot of people wanted Bobby to just go with three [starters -- Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz]. But he had me start Game 4. And I won it."

Avery allowed one run in six innings. Two games later, Glavine pitched eight shutout frames in a 1-0 victory, and the Braves won the World Series.

"I've always appreciated what Bobby did," Avery said.

Before the 1996 season ended, there was every indication that Avery's run as an elite pitcher had was over. He was with the Red Sox for two seasons and the Reds for one after that.

"It hurt to see him try to make it back after the shoulder," Smoltz said.

Avery had a short-lived comeback as a reliever with the Tigers in 2003 and then turned to golf.

"Those guys were still in the game," he said. "I wanted to get back in. But nah."

He keeps in touch with the Fab Four by phone and text. Smoltz is scheduled to be in Detroit to work a baseball game on June 6. Avery lives in Dearborn, Mich., so there will certainly be some golf played that weekend. Avery and Smoltz both intend to attend the induction ceremony for Cox, Glavine and Maddux. And another reunion of the four pitchers could happen next summer if Smoltz is elected this winter.

Avery will be the odd man out if Smoltz is elected. And his golf game isn't what it used to be. But he seems like a content man.

He's had his moments.

Marty Noble is a columnist for

Atlanta Braves