Former Atlanta Braves star John Smoltz stopped short of applauding the Baseball Writers Assn. of America for its tepid support of admitted or suspected performance-enhancing drug users in its Hall of Fame voting.
But it was clear by the pitcher’s comments during his Hall of Fame induction conference call Tuesday he approved of the stance many have taken toward players such as Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Mark McGwire, all of whom fell well short of Cooperstown again this winter.
“Back in 2000, I tried to find different ways to make my point,” said Smoltz, a strong proponent of drug-testing before baseball initiated its first program in 2003. “I was one of those skeptics way back when, who didn’t think we’d get to this point, but [the current drug-testing program] has exceeded my expectations.
“The game had to go through what it did to get back to appreciating some of the all-time best hitters and pitchers who did it within the rules of the game. What it means moving forward, I’m not sure, but we’ve found a way to make sure this game has the integrity it needs so that the great fans don’t have to sit there and wonder if what they’re watching is legitimate or not.”
Smoltz will be a rarity in Cooperstown, a right-hander who was both an elite starter and closer during a 21-year career (1988-2009) in which he went 213-155 with a 3.33 earned-run average and 154 saves, all but 10 during a three-year stint in the Braves bullpen from 2002 to 2004.
Smoltz wondered whether his separate numbers as a starter and reliever would merit Hall of Fame consideration but was grateful voters rewarded him for his body of work. Smoltz was named on 455 of 549 ballots, garnering 82.9% of the vote.
“Maybe voters had to do more work on me because separating each thing that makes me unique doesn’t qualify me for a Hall of Fame career,” Smoltz said. “But I made a selfless choice to make a change because I wanted to help the team.
“I was coming off Tommy John surgery in 2001 and thought I had no choice but to move to the bullpen. I risked a lot. I changed arm angles, threw sidearm, threw knuckleballs. I pitched under circumstances that weren’t ideal, all with the idea to win. If that meant staying in the bullpen, I would have stayed there.”
Smoltz, an eight-time All-Star who won the National League Cy Young Award in 1996, returned to the rotation in 2005 and went 44-24 with a 3.22 ERA over the next three seasons.
Part of the “Big Three” in an Atlanta rotation that included future Hall of Famers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, Smoltz helped the Braves win 14 of 15 NL East titles from 1991-2005, their only second-place finish during that span coming in strike-shortened 1994.
Smoltz’s only regret? That Atlanta, which lost 106 games in 1988 and 97 games in 1989 and 1990, won only one World Series title during its lengthy division reign, over the Cleveland Indians in 1995. The Braves lost the World Series in 1991 (Minnesota), 1992 (Toronto) and 1996 (New York Yankees).
“There are so many components that make up a great team or define a champion,” Smoltz said. “We had all those ingredients and more. We had opportunities and just didn’t get it done. We lost our first eight World Series games by one run, but in baseball, that’s no different than losing by eight.
“The biggest thing for me personally was that I was given an opportunity [to reach the World Series] 14 straight years. I don’t think anyone else will ever be able to do that. Yeah, there’s a little part of me that sits there and goes, ‘My gosh, we could have won a few more, how did we not get it done?’
“But when I look back, to have started out with three straight 100-loss seasons, it was the greatest run in sports. I know the end result is what we’re known for, but at least we got one. No doubt, we should have had a few more.”
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