Friday, May 25, 2007

Underrated Smoltz?

There has been a lot of talk around the internet sports world recently about things like overratedness/underratedness, best ever/worst ever, Top 10 guys you want hitting clean up in the third inning of a July doubleheader, etc. As Scott Fowler said in a recent response to his online Q&A, "in the summer you really need to be enterprising and create your own ideas, because there are very few events that are worth a general sports column during those months." For most sports writers with a's time to whip out that overrated column again.

I, however, want to take this moment to talk about a sports story that has made headlines today, but will most likely be pushed aside by Memorial Day. The final member of the most dominating pitching triumvirate of baseball's modern era now has 200 wins.

John Smoltz pitched an impressive seven innings of shutout baseball to pull out a 2-1 victory over the division rival Mets last night. The victory was a milestone achievement for the longest-tenured Atlanta Brave still on the roster. It was fitting that the win came against the Mets, the team that Smoltz earned his first victory against nearly 19 years ago. It was also fitting that Smoltz' rival pitcher was none other than Tom Glavine, longtime Braves teammate and friend.

In the modern era of free agency and hired hands (see Roger Clemens) John Smoltz has stuck it out with the Braves, even when injuries and surgery forced Bobby Cox to move him into the bullpen for several years. Smoltz never complained about the Braves' low payroll...he was always willing to do whatever it took to lead the club to victory.

For Smoltz, that often meant sharing the spotlight. In some cases, it meant giving it up all together. Between 1991 and 2005, the Atlanta Braves were a fixture at the top of their division. Although they only won one World Series during that stretch, the Atlanta Braves was one of MLB's most successful franchises at developing young talent, winning close games, and showcasing Hall of Fame starting pitching.

Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz are three of the most dominating pitchers over the last 20 years. Yet, despite my homer perspective, I believe that they won't ever get the immortal name status that they deserve. None of them possessed the strikeout power of a pitcher like Roger Clemens. None of them had the fiery personality of a pitcher like Pedro Martinez. They didn't rack up no-hitters like Nolan Ryan.

For most consumers of modern-day sports media, Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz are flat out boring. These guys spent all of their years perfecting pitch placement, strategic planning and letting batters hit balls right to their fielders. These guys are the Tim Duncan of major league baseball. The most remarkable part, however, is how they all ended up on the same team.

In the ten years when they were together with the Braves, Atlanta went 952-600, an average of 35 games over .500 each year. The trio had a combined 15 seasons where they finished in the top 5 of the Cy Young voting and they combined for seven out of the 10 Cy Youngs of the 1990s.

The greatest thing about these three men is that they are perfectly willing to let their pitches speak for themselves. Although they never bragged about their accomplishments, these men were competitors in the truest form. They always pushed themselves to be excellent hitters. Whenever one of them would not make the sacrifice bunt or extend the inning, the other ones would always get on his case. They were excellent fielders who never saw their role as a baseball player as only consisting of pitching off the mound. Maddux won every Gold Glove award between 1990 and 2001, while Smoltz and Glavine combined for five silver slugger awards.

The Atlanta Braves might always be derided by baseball fans around the country because of their softness. They could never win the big ones, their city didn't really show up to games, their players weren't fiery. While there is certainly truth to these criticisms, I believe that the Braves are still one of the best organizations in professional sports. Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and especially John Smoltz all have had a major hand in making that happen.

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