Along the way, John Smoltz kept himself motivated by the belief that he was always walking in the shadows of Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. But two decades into his unique career, Smoltz has willed himself into a select fraternity and proven he, too, is one of the greatest pitchers of his generation.
Because of numerous arm problems and an injury-induced 3 1/2-year stint in the bullpen, Smoltz didn't have the opportunity to notch 300 career wins like Maddux and Glavine. But he does now stand as one of 16 Major Leaguers to record 3,000 strikeouts, and by reaching this milestone, he has attained a number that can forever describe the greatness of his career.
"He's one of the gifted guys that appreciates his ability and goes out there and works hard, and he's backed it up by a 20-year career," said former Astro Craig Biggio, who broke into the Majors a month before Smoltz. "I'm happy for him. Obviously, we've had our battles over the years, but they've been good battles."
On Smoltz's ascent toward the 3,000 mark, Biggio proved to be the most common victim, striking out 26 times in 115 plate appearances. The first encounter between these two occurred on June 10, 1989, and resulted in a four-pitch, called strikeout.
Two decades ago, Smoltz possessed a little more hair and a lively fastball that immediately gained notice. During his Major League debut on July 23, 1988, he limited a powerful Mets lineup to one run over eight innings and proved to the Braves that his 21-year-old arm might truly be something special.
"Pretty early on, it was evident that he had great stuff," said Glavine, who had made his Major League debut with the Braves less than one year earlier.
Through the first six innings of that Saturday afternoon debut at Shea Stadium, Smoltz hadn't recorded a strikeout. But after a Dale Murphy triple helped him gain a lead in the top of the seventh, the young hurler began the bottom half of the inning with consecutive strikeouts of Darryl Strawberry and Howard Johnson.
Smoltz's first Major League strikeout came during this three-pitch at-bat against Strawberry, who was caught looking at strike three.
"You could tell right away that he was going to be a great in the Majors," Strawberry said. "He always had great poise."
Throughout the early portion of his career, Smoltz, like many other young pitchers, attempted to overpower too many hitters and often found himself challenging opponents in counts where he had the advantage and luxury of making them chase something out of the strike zone.
As he began to mature as a pitcher, Smoltz made fewer mistakes. But there were plenty of occasions when his competitive desires led him to challenge hitters, even when it wasn't in his best interest. "One thing that I enjoyed about facing him was that he always challenged you as a hitter," said Johnson, who currently serves as the Mets hitting coach. "He would try to get you out. He wouldn't pitch around you like some other guys. I always respected that. "As a guy who made a career out of hitting the fastball, he certainly caught my eye."
Braves manager Bobby Cox remembers having his own great first impression. While serving as the Braves general manager on Aug. 12, 1987, Cox traded Doyle Alexander to the Tigers in exchange for Smoltz, who at the time wasn't statistically computing to be a solid prospect. In 130 innings for Double-A Glenn Falls that year, Smoltz had posted a 5.68 ERA, surrendered 131 hits and registered 86 strikeouts against 81 walks.
|"When you think of all the pitchers who have come through here in the past 15 years, Smoltz is the one that most guys will say is the nastiest of the bunch. [Maddux and Glavine] gave people a comfortable 0-for-4. [Smoltz] gave people a very uncomfortable 0-for-4."|
-- Braves infielder|
In Glavine, the Braves steadily learned that his stubborn intelligence and bulldog demeanor would make him special. At first look with Smoltz, Cox knew he had a prized thoroughbred. This is what prompted him to fly to Virginia one day in 1988 just to watch the strong-armed right-hander, who was playing for Triple-A Richmond, throw a side session.
"He had a [Dwight] Doc Gooden arm with a breaking ball to go with it," Cox said.
Once Smoltz went 12-2 in his final 18 starts of the 1991 season, his career began to blossom. He won his first National League strikeout title in 1992 and his second during his 1996 Cy Young Award campaign.
But after combining for 517 strikeouts in 1996 and 1997, Smoltz's career began to take a detour. He battled elbow problems both of the next two seasons and then missed all of 2000 while rehabbing from Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery. Shortly after returning in 2001, it was determined that it was in his best interest to be used as a reliever.
While serving in the bullpen through the end of 2004, Smoltz set a franchise record for career saves and established himself as one of the game's premier closers. But at the same time, he missed countless opportunities for strikeouts.
Still, he's managed to reach the 3,000 strikeout mark with fewer innings than all but five of the other 15 members. Only Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Nolan Ryan, Curt Schilling and Roger Clemens reached this mark with less innings.
"I think it's pretty good [3,000 strikeouts]," said Maddux, who needed 4,313 innings to reach this mark. "What is he one of three guys to win 20 [games] and save 40 [games]? That's phenomenal. I mean, he won 24 games one year . He's had a phenomenal career and it doesn't look like he's slowing down. I watched him throw the other night and he looked really good."
Smoltz and Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley are the only pitchers to have both 150 career wins and 150 career saves. Thus when Eckersley got inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2004, many took that as further indication that Smoltz, too, will likely one day gain enshrinement.
"If nothing else, Dennis Eckersley opened the door for him," said Hall of Fame pitcher Don Sutton. "But John has earned the right with all that he has done."
While serving as a Braves broadcaster from 1989-2006, Sutton had the pleasure of watching Glavine, Maddux or Smoltz on a near-nightly basis. Although each was different, they all have become the same in the fact that they are among greatest pitchers of all-time.
History will forever remember Glavine and Maddux as the craftiest of this trio and Smoltz as the most intimidating.
There's no doubt that intelligence and determination allowed Smoltz to find his way into the elite 3000-strikeout club. But opposing hitters will also tell plenty of tales about his filthy split-finger fastball and paralyzing slider.
"When you think of all the pitchers who have come through here in the past 15 years, Smoltz is the one that most guys will say is the nastiest of the bunch," Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said. "[Maddux and Glavine] gave people a comfortable 0-for-4. [Smoltz] gave people a very uncomfortable 0-for-4."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.