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John Smoltz earned his way to Cooperstown as a starter and reliever

John Smoltz excelled as a major league starting and relief pitcher over a career that spanned from 1988 through 2009, earning him a ticket to the HOF.

By Ross Forman

 John Smoltz was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2015.

John Smoltz was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2015.

John Smoltz has never been an autograph guy. Oh sure, he signs and he attends autograph signing sessions, such as Tristar Productions’ Collector’s shows. And he’s a nice, cordial, outgoing signer who is always polite and respectful of autograph-seekers, and his signature is distinctive and consistent.

Smoltz just doesn’t ask others for their autograph. Never has, and he doesn’t see that changing anytime soon.

Smoltz, in fact, says he only ever asked for, maybe, five autographs in his life … and he can’t even remember all five.

Tiger Woods was one, and he has an autograph from Magic Johnson, but someone got the signature for him.

“The (sports memorabilia) industry is growing; it’s continually getting bigger. I’m always surprised by the cards I see,” said Smoltz, the right-handed pitcher who played in the majors from 1988-2009, primarily for Atlanta before seeing time his final season with Boston and St. Louis. 

He had a 213-155 career record, along with 154 saves. He was an eight-time All-Star whose trophy collection includes the 1992 NLCS MVP, the 1996 NL Cy Young Award, the 2002 NL Rolaids Relief Pitcher of the Year, the 2005 Lou Gehrig Memorial Award, the 2005 Roberto Clemente Award, and the 2007 Branch Rickey Award.

Oh yeah, he also was a 2015 inductee into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

“When I was a kid, there was not as many (baseball card) options as (there are now), which is nice to see. I used to collect (cards) as a kid, until (I stopped when I got to) about A-League (of the minors).”

 John Smoltz signs a baseball at a Tristar Productions show. (Ross Forman photo)

John Smoltz signs a baseball at a Tristar Productions show. (Ross Forman photo)

His collection, though, was about 40,000 cards, he said.

Smoltz, who collected with a friend, said they always tried to create their own sets.

So why does he skip the autograph trail?

“I want to respect (others’) time and if I get to meet them, that’s more important to me, especially at this point in my life,” said Smoltz, now 49.

Smoltz had an amazing season for Atlanta in 1996, winning a career-high 24 games, while losing only 8. He also had 276 strikeouts that season.

Smoltz was just as dominant in 2002 – but as a relief pitcher.He went 3-2 that season, with a league-leading 55 saves. 

Smoltz had 45 and 44 saves each of the next two seasons.

“It was an interesting career, one with a lot of ups and downs,” Smoltz said. “Going to the bullpen was the hardest thing I ever had to do. It wasn’t my desire or choice, (but rather), it was an opportunity to (keep) Atlanta as my home (team) and stay playing for (manager) Bobby Cox.”

Smoltz’ 21-year career spanned 723 regular-season games and more than 3,400 innings pitched. He had 481 starts, 53 complete games and close to 3,100 career strike outs.

 A 1986 Procards minor league card of John Smoltz when he was a member of the Lakeland Tigers.

A 1986 Procards minor league card of John Smoltz when he was a member of the Lakeland Tigers.

He also had 14 years (25 series) of experience in the post-season and finished with a 15-4 record and 4 saves in the playoffs and World Series.

And with a bat, Smoltz even cracked five home runs in his career, as well as two triples.

His call to The Hall came in 2015 and he said, “it’s still somewhat unreal to think about.”

He added, “Last year, with all of the stuff surrounding the Hall of Fame, it happened so fast. Making it to the Hall of Fame was never a dream or goal of mine, (so) words cannot describe the emotion of getting that call (to the Hall) and having your career flash in front of you. 

“More than anything, it helped me realize all of the people who had an impact on my career because, without them, there’s no chance I would have sustained the career I had. I’m also very grateful to my friends, my family, and others.”

Smoltz’ run in Atlanta was playoff-rich, but only one World Series title (1995), which he admitted was “a little frustrating.”

Smoltz’ run in Atlanta included pitching alongside fellow Hall of Famers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. It was a pitching staff that might well have been one of the best ever.

And who knows when another team will compile a staff of such strong pitchers for such a long period of time. Not even the New York Mets of 2016, which feature “some of the greatest young pitchers I’ve ever seen assembled on one team,” he said.

“It saddens me the greatness of pitching is never to the elite level or greater, but the overall depth and sustainability has never been more problematic,” he said.

 1988 Fleer Update card (No. U-74) of John Smoltz.

1988 Fleer Update card (No. U-74) of John Smoltz.

When asked about starting and coming out of the bullpen, Smoltz compared it to golf. Think of the right-handed golfer who all of a sudden tried to golf left-handed. Sure, it’s golf, but it’s so, so different, starting with the mindset.

“As a starting pitcher, it was as if you drove your car at the same speed on the same route every day, (so), you’d have the structure of knowing what you were going to do,” he said. “As a closer, it was like you were in a NASCAR race and you had to drive as fast as you can.

“It’s two dynamically different things – being a starting pitcher and a relief pitcher.”

Which was more challenging?

Closing, without questions, he said, particularly due to the unpredictability of not knowing when you were going to pitch, how long, etc.

Another challenge that Smoltz admitted he would have liked was trying to strike out home run icon Hank Aaron.“I’m not sure I could have done it, but I would have liked to have tried,” he said.

Smoltz said fellow Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn was the hardest batter to strike out.

Ross Forman is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He can be reached at Rossco814@aol.com.