Some 36 years ago, one trade helped launch two promising major league careers, putting two pitchers on a path that would lead them to incredible success, copious personal accolades, postseason glory and, eventually, all the way to Cooperstown.
Hall of Fame pitchers Tom Glavine and John Smoltz have been linked together since the Atlanta Braves made a late-season swap with the Detroit Tigers on Aug. 12, 1987. The deal sent veteran starter Doyle Alexander to the Tigers in exchange for Smoltz, consequently opening a spot in the Atlanta rotation for Glavine to make his major league debut five days later.
That well-documented trade wove two remarkable careers into the fabric of the franchise, but it was also the common thread for a friendship that has since moved from the mound to the broadcast booth across the past 36 years.
“Obviously, for me, there was a different level of curiosity, because that was my ticket to the big leagues,” Glavine said of the trade and hearing Smoltz’s name for the first time. “We’re forever linked for a lot of reasons, that (trade) starting it.”
This week marked the 36th anniversary of Glavine’s first career start.
Though it was far from the best start, it was the start of something special for the Braves. Little did they know that the left-hander who allowed six runs in 3 2/3 innings to the Houston Astros on Aug. 17, 1987, would go on to pitch in the biggest games on the grandest stage in just a few short years and eventually become a World Series MVP.
“It was a surreal moment,” Glavine recalled of his debut. “You’re in the big leagues. You’re fulfilling a childhood dream. You wonder how you got here. You wonder how it’s going to go, how long it’s going to last, all of those things. You try to dismiss all that so that, when you get on the mound, it’s all about pitching. And it is, to a certain extent, but it’s hard not to go through a little bit of being starstruck. You’re on that mound and you’re facing hitters that, two weeks ago, you were watching on TV. They have history, you don’t.”
History was waiting down the road for Glavine, though.
He went on to defeat the Pittsburgh Pirates his next time out, recording the first of his 303 career wins.
Atlanta was building a stable of young pitchers in hopes of reversing the club’s struggling fortunes through much of the 1980s. Glavine was drafted in 1984, a second-round selection out of Billerica High School in Massachusetts who forsook a promising hockey career — he was a fourth-round pick of the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings that same year — to play professional baseball instead.
It is hard to imagine the Braves of the 1990s without Glavine at the forefront, but he arrived in the organization with nary an inkling of where the journey would take him.
“When I got drafted, I didn’t know much about (the Braves),” Glavine said. “I knew Dale Murphy and I knew Hank Aaron, and that was about the extent of my Braves knowledge. Obviously, it turned out to be a great place to be, and the perfect place for me in terms of starting my career, getting to the big leagues and being successful. I’ve got to believe I was where I was supposed to be.”
At the time of the trade with Detroit, Smoltz was a promising 20-year-old arm struggling his way through the minor league season at Double-A Glens Falls. The Michigan native had long dreamed of pitching for the Tigers, who drafted him in the 22nd round in 1985.
While the trade provided a new opportunity, it was a concept that took a moment to recognize because of the drastic change involved.
When Smoltz arrived in the Braves organization, he did not report to Atlanta. He was instead assigned to Triple-A Richmond to close out that 1987 season. Smoltz returned to Richmond the following year, seemingly put everything together and earned his call to the big leagues just after the All-Star break.
“I was kind of a fish out of water when I got here,” Smoltz said. “The Braves had already kind of established the young pitching prospects in the minor leagues. I was the guy that was traded for that was supposed to, hopefully, be what I ended up being, but they just let me in. They basically took me in right away and I was grateful for that.”
It was an expeditious rise for the young right-hander, who arrived in the Braves rotation on July 23, 1988, with eight strong innings in a winning effort against the powerhouse New York Mets of the time. It was the first of his 213 career victories.
Smoltz subsequently spent most of the next decade-and-a-half alongside Glavine in Atlanta’s starting five.
“When I look back, I think I would’ve made it (with Detroit), but I don’t know that I would’ve made it the way I did,” Smoltz said of breaking in with Atlanta so quickly. “It was kind of surreal because I was devastated from the trade. I needed some time to kind of get over not being wanted, but then realized I was wanted by somebody else.”
Smoltz’s new club definitely wanted players to help improve its perennially poor performance.
Aside from division titles in 1969 and 1982, the Braves spent most of their first two-and-a-half decades in Atlanta at or near the bottom of the standings. By the time Glavine and Smoltz arrived in the majors, the farm system was beginning to bear fruit and provide some hope for the future.
“They made a commitment to build around pitching, particularly young pitching,” Glavine said. “Looking back at all the guys they had, myself, Smoltzie, (Steve) Avery, Pete Smith — all of us had very similar personalities. I think that had a lot to do with why the Braves were comfortable doing that. I think they knew that we were all mentally tough and we could all endure some of the lumps and the bumps along the way, get better and, ultimately, get to a place where we helped make this team successful.”
Each of those young arms complemented the other, helping establish an almost natural state of refinement and evolution as they racked up innings and experience.
“It’s not hard to get to know Smoltzie and ultimately like him,” Glavine said. “He’s got a big personality. He’s always the guy that’s initiating the conversation. That’s his personality. He was a great fit for a lot of us that were a little bit more on the quiet side. He was highly regarded for the Braves to make that trade, highly regarded when he got into our system, and you can see all the reasons why.”
On the other side, Smoltz appreciated the stoic qualities Glavine exuded on the mound.
“How we went about (competing) was in different ways,” Smoltz said. “I had a different style of pitching than he did, but he taught me a lot of how to gut it out and hide your emotions. Don’t show it. I was a very show-my-emotions type of guy. He taught me things indirectly, as did Greg Maddux.”
Glavine and Smoltz both struggled out of the gate for Atlanta, something Smoltz believes is often glossed over when people examine their gaudy career totals. That early adversity and the lessons learned throughout helped shape both men.
Maddux joined those two in Atlanta after signing as a free-agent in the winter of 1992, but even he took some lumps over the first couple of years of his career with the Chicago Cubs before transforming into a four-time Cy Young Award winner.
“When people talk about us three being Hall of Famers, that we were always meant to be, that is a joke,” Smoltz said. “We were never on a path to the Hall of Fame. We created a path. The organization gave us an opportunity — and our era did — but we lost a ton of games early. It was not a pretty picture. It was not like we were meant to be. We just flourished in an era that allowed all three of us to learn, to learn how to be great, and then, of course, those two pursued it at the highest level and I kind of came along and filled in the gap.”
Smoltz did a bit more than they may be letting on.
While Glavine and Maddux each joined the 300-win club, Smoltz became the only pitcher in major league history to record 200 victories and earn 150 saves, in addition to being one of the most dominant postseason pitchers of all-time.
All three men now have their respective numbers retired at Truist Park, a testament to the winning ways they helped create as the vaunted “Big Three” for Atlanta.
“We bonded because our personalities didn’t allow us to worry about who the (top) guy was going to be, like who’s the ace,” Smoltz said of the kinship between him, Glavine and Maddux. “I think that could have been very fragile if we all wanted to be that guy. Certainly, for me, I’d have been let down a lot, seeing what they did.”
Even after nearly four decades, the teammates and friends still find themselves as part of the same rotation.
In June, Glavine, Smoltz, fellow Hall of Famer Chipper Jones and former teammate-turned-broadcaster Jeff Francoeur, joined forces to broadcast the Braves’ game together for Bally Sports South. That group will once again assemble in the booth Aug. 23 to reprise their roles in the wildly popular players-only telecast.
“You’re trying to do your best to entertain, but then you realize, we’re just back together,” Smoltz said. “Just to see the way each life path has taken us, it was pretty interesting that we were able to get together and pull it off. I think we’ll have the same kind of fun (next time). Won’t promise anything, but I think there will be a lot of fun, a lot of laughter, a lot of stories and, hopefully, again, the game is very entertaining.”
This article originally appeared in the Marietta Daily Journal. Find it here.