Braves to honor Smoltz by retiring No. 29
Ceremony, induction into team's Hall of Fame to be held June 8
ATLANTA -- Twenty-five years after acquiring John Smoltz in a trade that brought more attention to Doyle Alexander, the Braves will immortalize Smoltz alongside the franchise's most iconic figures.
Smoltz's legendary career in Atlanta will be celebrated June 8, when the Braves induct him into the club's Hall of Fame and retire the No. 29 jersey he wore while teaming with Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine to form some of the greatest starting rotations in baseball history.
The induction ceremony will be held during an afternoon luncheon and Smoltz's number will be retired before that evening's game against the Blue Jays.
"I've never ever thought about having my number retired," Smoltz said. "I never thought about anything other than giving everything I had to the fullest and finishing as strong as I could. When I think about it, it will probably hit home and it probably won't until that day. But it's very humbling."
When reminiscing about the 14 consecutive division titles the Braves won under manager Bobby Cox's guidance, it is impossible to ignore the impact made by Smoltz, Maddux and Glavine. They combined for five National League Cy Young Awards during their first six years together and a total of seven of the first nine awarded during the 1990s.
Smoltz proudly owns the distinction of being the only player who was with the Braves for each of the consecutive division titles won from 1991-2005. Now -- like Maddux, Glavine and Cox -- he'll have the honor of being one of just nine players in franchise history to have his number retired.
Maddux's No. 31 was retired in 2009 and Glavine's 47 the following summer. Cox, who wore No. 6, had his turn last year, and now Smoltz finds himself in position to savor this honor.
"I can't think about what life would have been like without those two [Maddux and Glavine] and really every pitcher -- [Steve] Avery, [Charlie] Leibrandt, [Kevin] Millwood, [Pete] Smith and [Denny] Neagle," Smoltz said. "You name it, we had a great time competing and having fun."
The other players to have their numbers retired by the Braves are Hank Aaron (44), Eddie Mathews (41), Dale Murphy (3), Phil Niekro (35) and Warren Spahn (21).
Murphy stands as the only member of the latter group who has not been inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and he may continue to hold that distinction. Maddux, Glavine and Cox are all expected to gain entry in 2014. Smoltz will be eligible for induction the following year.
"John has contributed so much to Atlanta Braves history," Braves president John Schuerholz said. "Inducting him into our Hall of Fame and making sure no one else will ever wear his No. 29 are the most meaningful and significant ways we can honor John."
One of the most competitive and talented athletes to don a Braves uniform, Smoltz went 210-147 with a 3.26 ERA during the 20 seasons he pitched with Atlanta. He notched a franchise-record 154 saves during the 3 1/2 seasons he served as a closer after returning from Tommy John surgery in 2001.
Smoltz stands as the only pitcher in Major League history with 200 wins and 150 saves. He went 15-4 with five saves and a 2.67 ERA in 41 postseason appearances, 27 of them starts.
Smoltz introduced himself as a big-game pitcher during the 1991 postseason, when he went 2-0 with a 1.52 ERA in four starts. Unfortunately, he was on the wrong end of that October's most memorable game. His 7 1/3 scoreless innings in Game 7 of the World Series were not enough to trump the 10 scoreless innings his boyhood idol Jack Morris completed while leading the Twins to a 1-0 win.
The 1991 season gave the Braves evidence they had gained something special when they traded Alexander to the Tigers in exchange for Smoltz on Aug. 12, 1987. Smoltz was a 20-year-old pitcher who had gone 4-10 with a 5.68 ERA in 21 starts with Double-A Glen Falls of the Eastern League before the trade.
"That trade was a devastating time in my life," Smoltz said. "At the time, there was nothing worse that could have happened to me. Obviously, it was just a blip in my life. But when you're 20 and you're getting traded for the first time, you can't even imagine what goes through your mind when you feel like you're not wanted by somebody, but wanted by another."
Smoltz made his Major League debut in 1988 and showed promise while playing for some bad Braves teams the next couple of seasons. His career started to turn in the wrong direction in his first 18 starts of the 1991 season, when he went 2-11 with a 5.16 ERA.
Looking back, Smoltz knows this was a product of trying too hard to prove a point Schuerholz, who was in his first season as the club's general manager. At the advice of his former agent, the young pitcher actually walked out of Spring Training for two days in protest of his salary.
"It wasn't anything I said," Smoltz said. "I just think the actions weren't reflective of the person that I was. It was the hardest thing I ever had to do in life. I hated it. It ultimately didn't get me anywhere."
In his first full season of his second and final tenure as Braves manager, Cox showed great patience with the young pitcher. An appreciative Smoltz went 12-2 with a 2.63 ERA in his final 18 starts of that memorable worst-to-first season.
Smoltz's finest season was 1996, when he went 24-8 with a 2.94 ERA and won the NL Cy Young Award.
Through the early days of his career, he had attempted to get Mark Lemke's No. 20 jersey, because the number was one he could reasonably notch in wins during a season. During the 1996 season, Smoltz had 24 regular-season wins, four postseason wins and a win in the All-Star Game.
That led longtime Braves director of team travel and clubhouse operations Bill Acree to tell Smoltz, "Twenty-nine is achievable."
Smoltz spent his career attempting to achieve the unachievable. He had never closed on a full-time basis before the start of the 2002 season. Yet by the end of that season, he had notched an NL-record 55 saves.
Smoltz returned to the starting rotation in 2005 and won at least 14 games in each of the next three seasons. He made just five starts in 2008 before feeling shoulder discomfort that led to surgery and essentially ended his storied career in Atlanta.
The Braves wanted to take some time to evaluate Smoltz's shoulder before re-signing him the next winter. Unwilling to wait and upset with what he perceived to be a lack of interest, the veteran pitcher signed with the Red Sox in early January 2009.
Smoltz made eight starts for the Red Sox before being released and signed by the Cardinals, who saw him complete the final seven starts of his career in their uniform.
Like so many other iconic athletes, Smoltz was not able to complete his career with the organization with which he will always be most synonymous.
But he is thankful that the Braves have given him one more chance to say goodbye to the fans.
"It's just an incredible feeling that has yet to sink in," Smoltz said.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.