Braves' 'Big Three' all deserve spots in Hall
There was a fancy luncheon for John Smoltz on Friday afternoon at a hotel ballroom in downtown Atlanta. Later in the evening, his No. 29 will be retired by Braves officials at Turner Field, where they'll announce to what is expected to be a large and appreciative crowd that their pitcher of yore is now in the franchise's hall of fame.
All of this well-deserved hugging of Smoltz is enough to spark more than a few questions for inquiring minds.
For instance: Just how great was this guy in comparison to a couple of his teammates you might recognize? Why isn't the Braves' franchise as noted as it should be for producing pitchers for the ages? Mostly, come the summer of 2015, is there any way that "Smoltzie" won't have a place on the big stage in Cooperstown?
As for the latter, Atlanta's Hall of Fame is nice and everything, but the one in Cooperstown is better. The coronation of Smoltz on Friday was just a sneak preview of his bronzed plaque to come. In fact, if Smoltz doesn't make Cooperstown during his first year of eligibility in 2015, that means he never threw a 98 mph fastball.
And Smoltz did. He threw that swiftly as a starter and reliever to do the unprecedented by collecting more than 200 victories and 150 saves during a career. He also joined Dennis Eckersley as the only pitchers with a 20-victory season and a 50-save season.
Eckersley already is in the Hall of Fame, and Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine are on the way after serving as teammates with Smoltz on those powerful Braves teams of the 1990s.
Let that sink in.
Just like Smoltz, Maddux and Glavine made multiple trips to All-Star Games, and each among that trio had at least one National League Cy Young Award-winning season, along with a slew of baseball skills (hitting and fielding, for instance) that went beyond what they did on the mound.
Which brings us back to one of those questions: Who was the best of that trio, and where do the others rank in order?
The answer is ...
It varied. If you wanted pure greatness, there was Maddux, the right-handed Picasso whose pitches consistently painted various parts of the strike zone during a given at-bat to produce masterpieces.
Maddux became the first pitcher to win four consecutive Cy Young Awards. He also was such a splendid fielder that he has 18 Gold Glove Awards in his trophy case to prove it.
If you wanted pure guts, there was Glavine, who nearly was as precise with his pitches as Maddux -- a left-handed Picasso. Glavine was the omnipresent face of the players during the Mother of All Strikes in 1994. As a result, he was the primary target for fan outrage, even when the work stoppage ended, but he continued with his same stoic and effective approach that produced two NL Cy Young Awards.
Not coincidently, it was Glavine's eight shutout innings during Game 6 of the 1995 World Series that helped the Braves overcome public ridicule to capture the only World Series championship during their record streak of 14 consecutive division titles.
By the time of Glavine's retirement in 2008, he was only the sixth left-hander in history with more than 300 career victories, and he has four Silver Slugger Awards on his resume.
That leaves Smoltz. If you wanted pure greatness and pure guts, he was your pitcher -- as a starter and as a reliever. He collected just one NL Cy Young Award compared to the multiple ones of Maddux and Glavine, but Smoltz used his versatility and overwhelming power to become the most dominant of the three, especially in the postseason.
For years, Smoltz's 15 postseason victories were a baseball record, and now he is second behind Andy Pettitte's 19. If you add that to Smoltz's four years as an untouchable closer, well, you could make the case that he is No. 1 among that Braves' trio.
You really could, but I won't.
Too tough of a call.
Now consider this: In addition to Smoltz, Maddux and Glavine, the Braves also have Warren Spahn and Phil Niekro as iconic pitchers in the history of their franchise. Spahn and Niekro already are in Cooperstown, which means the Braves' franchise is a baseball rarity by moving toward having an all-time Big Five of Hall-of-Fame pitchers.
I'm only talking about Hall of Fame pitchers who spent a large amount of their careers with that particular franchise.
Given that scenario, I huddled with Hall of Fame librarian Jim Gates over the phone from Cooperstown. We determined that only the franchises of the Athletics (Charles "Chief" Bender, Lefty Grove, Rollie Fingers, Catfish Hunter, Rube Waddell and Eckersley), and the Giants (Carl Hubbell, Christy Mathewson, Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry and Rube Marquard) could match or surpass the Braves.
Take the historically pitching-rich Dodgers, for instance. When it comes to pitchers of longevity in their franchise, they have a big four of Burleigh Grimes, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Don Sutton. After that, they have a bunch of former standouts such as Don Newcombe, Orel Hershiser, Fernando Valenzuela and Tommy John, who aren't in the Hall of Fame and who won't be heading there soon.
Smoltz, Maddux and Glavine have everything from the tip of their cleats to the bill of their caps in Cooperstown.
At least, that should be the case.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.