Scouts thrilled they followed tip on Smoltz
Madeja recalls first look at 2015 Hall of Famer as high school junior in Michigan
ATLANTA -- Three decades later, veteran scout Ken Madeja can laugh about the time he thought he would be wasting his time to go watch the grandson of a Tiger Stadium employee.
During his 30-plus years working on the grounds crew and in the press box at Tiger Stadium, John Frank Smoltz developed a good relationship with many of the club's employees. This led him to ask Bill Schudlich, who was serving as a Midwest scouting supervisor at the time, to take a look at his grandson who was playing baseball for nearby Waverly High School.
Madeja, who was the area scout for Michigan, received this request from Schudlich and immediately figured it would lead him to spend a couple of countless hours watching a high school baseball game that did not include any legitimate prospects.
"Bill said we got a guy who wants you to go see his grandson, blah, blah, blah," Madeja said. "I've been through that. I had been with Detroit since 1978 and when you're the hometown guy, you hear this [stuff] all the time. I told Bill, 'Come on, I'm not chasing down another one.' He said, 'Go see the kid and take a look at him.'"
Once Madeja took his first look at this lanky junior right-hander, he quickly realized John Smoltz was not the run-of-the-mill type. The 16-year-old hurler was raw and he hooked his wrist, which scouts view as a sign of potential command issues. But at the same time, it was obvious that this was a great athlete who could unleash his plus fastball in a free and easy manner.
"I went back and told Schudlich, 'This time, we got a good tip. This kid is pretty good,'" Madeja said.
The kid that proved to be even better than good will soon find himself immortalized alongside baseball's all-time greats. When Smoltz gained election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame on Tuesday afternoon, Madeja was among the many who could proudly say that they'd had the privilege of watching him progress throughout his journey to greatness.
"I talked to Schudlich today, and we're both very proud of the guy," Madeja said.
Because there was some concern that Smoltz would opt to play baseball and possibly basketball at Michigan State, he did not get selected until the Tigers took him in the 22nd round of the 1985 First-Year Player Draft.
Smoltz likened the anxiety leading up to Tuesday's Hall call to what he felt leading up to that Draft.
"I was waiting by the phone," Smoltz said. "Back then, that's how they did it [when you were drafted]. They said you'll probably get drafted between the first to third rounds. So, expect a phone call. Well, two weeks later, I got a phone call. The 22nd round wasn't something that indicated what awaited me during my career."
Smoltz did not sign right away. Instead he spent some time playing for the United States Junior Olympic team. During that stint, a rival executive called Bill Lajoie, who was the Tigers' general manager, and informed him that this kid he had taken in the 22nd round might be as good as any other player drafted that same year.
The Tigers eventually signed Smoltz the night before the young athlete was going to begin taking classes at Michigan State. They sweetened the deal by allowing him to go with the Major League club during its next road trip to New York. Suddenly, the 18-year-old Smoltz found himself alongside Jack Morris, Alan Trammell and his other childhood favorites.
"I idolized every single one of those guys, and here I was thrust into uniform with these guys right after they won the World Series," Smoltz said. "I was a fish out of water. It was Jack Morris, Dan Petry and you name it. Alan Trammell came right up to me. I was sitting in a locker looking like I don't belong here. He shook my hand and said, 'Whatever I can do for you, please let me know.'"
Much to the chagrin of Madeja and Schudlich, the Tigers traded Smoltz two years later to the Braves in exchange for Doyle Alexander. Though Alexander helped Detroit win a division title with a strong finish, the Braves spent most of the next two decades reaping the benefits of the trade.
Bobby Cox, who served as Atlanta's general manager at the time, still remembers the two scouts -- Paul Snyder and John Hagemann -- who lobbied hard for Smoltz to be the return for Alexander.
"John and Paul get all the credit," Cox said. "We thought we had a great one and we did. The Hall of Fame is the top of the mountain. So, it can't get any better for us."