The visit by the Red Sox to central Florida to play the Braves on Monday will offer yet another reminder of a still-foreign concept. John Smoltz, after 21 seasons with Atlanta, is preparing for life with a new major-league team.
A pitcher who seemed all but certain to spend his entire career with one big-league club is instead rehabbing from shoulder surgery with the goal of a mid-summer unveiling in Boston. The concept is shocking. And yet, in a sense, it is not the most jarring professional move that Smoltz has had to make.
“I wanted to retire an Atlanta Brave, just as much as I wanted to play for my hometown team,” said Smoltz. “Neither of those things happened.”
For Smoltz at least, it is hard to say whether the departure from the Braves was as stunning as the deal that sent him from the Detroit Tigers to Atlanta in 1987. Smoltz was a life-long Tigers fan whose grandfather spent more than three decades working on the grounds crew at Tiger Stadium.
He bypassed a scholarship offer at Michigan State because of the opportunity to play for his hometown team after being drafted in the 22nd round in 1985. As such, he was blindsided when the Tigers dealt him – after the July 31 non-waivers trade deadline, no less – on August 12, 1987, to the Braves for starter Doyle Alexander.
“That was the last thing that I ever expected. That totally threw me for a loop. It’s hard to describe (how difficult that trade was) because of how bad I wanted to play for the Tigers,” Smoltz recalled. “I didn’t know anything about the National League. I was going to the worst team in baseball. I was just crushed.”
The trade is one of the most fascinating in major-league history. More often than not, mid-year deals result in disappointment for one or both teams. A veteran acquired for the stretch run fails to make a difference. A prospect fizzles.
Not in this case. Both the Tigers and Braves got everything they could have wanted out of the players they acquired, making that August 1987 deal a fascinating case study in short-term versus long-term value.
For Detroit, Alexander went 9-0 with a 1.53 ERA in 11 starts, leading the Tigers to an A.L. East title on the last day of the regular season. In Atlanta, Smoltz produced a Hall of Fame career, earning 210 wins and a Cy Young award in his 21 years.
In hindsight, it seems obvious that the Braves got the better of the deal. Even though the Tigers were able to make a remarkable run to win the American League East in 1987 (losing in the ALCS to the Twins), it has been natural for Detroit fans to spend the past two decades wondering, “What if?”
THE YOUNG SMOLTZ
Yet there were only hints in Smoltz’ professional resume at the time that suggested what he would become. After a successful pro debut in 1986 (7-8 record, 3.56 ERA for High-A Lakeland), he struggled terribly in the 1987 season.
The Tigers, who had few legitimate pitching prospects in the upper levels of their minor-league system, pushed Smoltz aggressively through their system. And so, in a season that he started as a 19-year-old (he turned 20 on May 15, 1987), Smoltz was left to flail in the depths of Double-A.
“We did not have a pitching coach there. I was struggling. Our team was horrible,” recalled Smoltz. “I felt like I was just spinning. … I just didn’t know whether I was coming or going. I didn’t know what was going on that year.”
His statistical profile for Glens Falls was terrible that year. Smoltz went 4-10 with a 5.68 ERA while walking almost as many batters (81) as he struck out (86). Despite those struggles, however, the talent was obvious.
Ralph Treuel, currently the minor-league pitching instructor for the Red Sox, held the same position with the Tigers in the 1980s. It was as a roving instructor that he encountered Smoltz – starting in fall instructional league in 1985 – and found that there was a great deal to work with.
“You could see that there was just a great amount of ability there. He was very athletic. He was a lot skinnier back then. He was basically arms and legs and feet,” said Treuel. “He’s filled out fairly well over the last 24 years.”
Yet even before he filled out, Smoltz’ arm was something to behold. Treuel recalled seeing the pitcher as an 18-year-old towards the end of his first instructional league season.
In the mid-1980s, the instructional league was a marathon, running from mid-September to mid-November. Though Smoltz lacked command of his secondary pitches at the time, Treuel was struck by the pitcher’s velocity.
Even in November, Smoltz was registering 87-89 mph on a Ra-Gun, which typically runs about four miles per hour below the current JUGS guns. Treuel believed that the pitcher would harness his command and add more velocity as he filled out.
The Tigers at the time had a somewhat crude grading scale for their pitchers: definite, above-average, average, below-average. Treuel pegged Smoltz a “definite,” suggesting a pitcher certain to be in the top half of a rotation. Even so, he acknowledges that no one then could see what Smoltz would become.
“Was he going to be a top-of-the-rotation guy? Yeah, that’s how I felt about it,” said Treuel. “You could see there was unbelievable potential. But to all of a sudden say this guy’s going to be a No. 1 starter, I don’t think you can say that about anybody.”
The Tigers made no secret to the Braves of their interest in acquiring Doyle Alexander for the stretch run in 1987. The team, which had won the World Series in 1984, was in a slugfest with the Blue Jays for the A.L. East, and needed an upgrade to its rotation.
Alexander seemed a perfect fit for the Tigers. He had a reputation as a dominant pitcher in September, having produced a 42-21 record for that month in his career. The Braves, for whom contention was years away, viewed such a player as entirely expendable.
Though it seems as if Bobby Cox has been in the Braves dugout forever, the current Atlanta skipper served as the team’s general manager in the late-1980s. He was the man who consummated the deal to acquire Smoltz for Alexander. But the credit for the trade, he insisted through a Braves spokesperson last week, belongs to John Hagemann.
Hagemann, now a scout for the Phillies, was the Braves’ scout in the Northeast for decades. He saw Smoltz pitch just twice for Glens Falls: once in a bullpen session, another time in a game. Yet the report that he submitted changed the career of a pitcher and the course of two franchises.
“I think my words were, ‘The best arm I’ve seen so far,’” said Hagemann. “Top-of-the-rotation guy. That’s how I saw him. I’m not a genius. I just recall a real live arm.”
Hagemann, in fact, said that Smoltz was not on the initial list of names that he was sent to Glens Falls to scout.
“(The Tigers) gave us about three or four names (of trade candidates). I went in and watched them in about a three or four game series. I didn’t like any of the names that they gave us,” said Hagemann. “(Smoltz) showed me just a great arm. He was raw at the time, but showed me a real live fastball, really good stuff. I called (Cox) and I said, ‘Bobby, I would just try to get Smoltz.’
“He said, ‘Smoltz—who the hell is he?’ I said, ‘He’s just an outstanding arm here.’
“(Cox) called back about 30 minutes later,” Hagemann continued. “He said, ‘John, they’re willing to give him up. Should we do that?’ I said, ‘Yeah, absolutely—you’ll be real happy you got this kid.’ The rest is history.”
There were some in the Tigers organization who would have rather seen another pitcher dealt. Among them was Detroit G.M. Bill Lajoie, considered one of the finest talent evaluators of recent decades.
In a phone interview last week, Lajoie suggested that Detroit had options in the deal for Alexander. The Braves would have taken another pitcher. But office politics (notably including a conflict between the G.M. and team president Jim Campbell) led to a decision-making structure in which Lajoie could not make decisions freely. In turn, Lajoie suggested, the Tigers made the wrong choice.
“The Atlanta Braves would take either (Steve) Searcy or Smoltz. When I asked various people, the consensus was (to keep) Searcy. The consensus was that he was closer (to the majors),” said Lajoie. “I didn’t feel like I was on real solid ground at the time. I went with the consensus, knowing full well that I should have traded Searcy. With a check and balance system, the president of the club said did this person agree, did this person agree? Yes. Did I agree? No. But with a checks and balances system, that’s why it was done.”
History would have looked quite different had Detroit kept the hometown kid and instead dealt Searcy. Searcy, three years older than Smoltz, was the more successful pitcher at the time. Like Smoltz, he was drafted in 1985, and he moved through the Tigers system at an even more aggressive pace than his younger counterpart.
In his first full year of pro ball in 1986, he excelled in Double-A, going 11-6 with a 3.30 ERA, earning a promotion to Triple-A Toledo for the 1987 season. There, he went 3-4 with a 4.22 ERA. Certainly, he was one of the Tigers’ best pitching prospects.
Even so, Treuel admitted that he was “disappointed” at the time that the Tigers had to part ways with Smoltz.
“To get a guy like Alexander at the time, you had to give up something pretty good,” said Treuel. “There were probably some other guys (he hoped the Tigers would use as trade chips)—it could have been a Kevin Ritz, it could have been a Steve Searcy. Yeah, I was disappointed. But there are only so many times to pull the trigger and get a guy like (Alexander) to give you a chance to get to the playoffs.”
Searcy reached the majors, but his accomplishments there were fleeting. He went 6-13 with a 5.68 ERA. For the Braves, Smoltz was clearly the right choice.
“To tell you the truth, I was really flabbergasted that they would give him up,” said Hagemann. “I never thought they would give him up.”
OPPORTUNITY IN ATLANTA
Hagemann was not alone. Smoltz’ family was also shocked – and devastated – when it learned that the pitcher would have to try to forge a path to the majors 600 miles from the ballpark in which he grew up.
“(Family members) got rid of every (piece) of Tiger paraphernalia they had,” said Smoltz. “That part was hard. All my family being in Detroit, that wasn’t a popular time.”
But Smoltz, who continued to root for the Tigers and watched with amazement as Alexander reeled off nine straight wins, came to understand that the career move worked in his favor. The Tigers showed an organizational bias towards veteran pitchers. That was not the case in Atlanta.
“I realized the opportunity existed for me to pitch at a very early age. (The Braves) needed pitching,” said Smoltz. “Then, all of a sudden I became excited again.”
That excitement was further reinforced when Smoltz arrived in the Braves organization. The confusion surrounding his minor-league path with the Tigers was quickly resolved.
“(The Tigers) changed just about everything about me. I thought I had a good delivery. I searched for two years and tried to figure it out,” said Smoltz. “I got to Atlanta, and (Mazzone) said let me see you throw a baseball. I threw a baseball and he said, ‘That’s a great delivery. That’s how you naturally throw a baseball.’
“From that point on, I was very relaxed and he said, ‘Now we’re just going to work on your pitches.’ That’s all I worked on. I actually was able to progress because I didn’t have to think about 14 different spots I was going to in my delivery. I just had to worry about throwing a pitch.”
Smoltz insists that there is “no way” that he would have been in the majors, let alone a successful major leaguer, for at least three years had he remained with the Tigers. With the Braves, however, he moved quickly, and enjoyed rapid success.
After taking his lumps in his major-league debut in 1988, he emerged as a young ace for some poor Braves teams shortly thereafter. By 1991, he had established himself as one of the most ferocious competitors in the majors, capable of going toe-to-toe with Jack Morris in Game 7 of the World Series.
It is impossible to say whether his Hall of Fame career path would have been possible if not for the trade. What is certain, however, is that prior to his current move from Atlanta to Boston, Smoltz’ last team change was one of the most interesting in major-league history.
“I consider that one of the most unique trades that accomplished both (teams’ goals),” said Smoltz. “When I look back now, it accomplished for both teams what they needed. You don’t trade for a guy (Alexander’s) age to worry about the long haul. You trade somebody that age to get to what ended up being their last run for a while.
“That’s the dynamics and decisions of a general manager,” Smoltz continued. “When you’re in position to help your team win, you do what you’ve got to do. There’s no guarantees for the future of a player. … (But) the Braves certainly benefited from the future.”