The Final Season: 1994 Revisited

Atlanta 6 – New York 2; CJ: 1-2, R, 2 BB

Watched football today, and there was a lot of comments on the return of the NFL’s referees. For the most part, they were positive, but not all.

Listening to them, though, got me thinking about whether or not the holdout was a good thing, or if it was handled correctly. And that got me thinking, as stream of consciousness often does, about the 1994 MLB player’s strike and whether or not it was good for the game.

It’s been 18 years since the strike caused MLB to miss a World Series. 18 years since the league seemed to have irreconcilably disappointed and outraged its fans. Yet here we are today. Baseball is not king of the American sports world. That honor goes to the NFL. It’s probably not even second, with college football ahead of it in terms of popularity. Yet, it’s not dead last. The NHL and the NBA seem to be in much worse condition. So, considering that, was it good or bad for baseball?

First, what caused the strike? Well, what every strike is caused by: money. The owners wanted to limit what players made with a salary cap, essentially, and the players felt that, if ownership needed more money to run their franchises, there were other ways they could do it then by limiting salaries. Essentially, it wasn’t their fault if the owners were short on cash, so why should they feel the consequences? Also, there’s a long history between ownership and players that has led to a lot of bad blood, so they weren’t exactly excited to work together on this.

Thus, common ground couldn’t be found, and the players went on strike in August of 1994 and did not return until April, 1995. As a young kid of 11, I remember not really understanding what was going on. My dad tried to explain it to me, but all I got out of it was that there wasn’t going to be any playoffs that year. To me, that meant no chance to stay up late on school nights and watch baseball with my dad.

I also remember, as a kid, not being angry when baseball came back. I know a lot of fans were, blaming both sides for ruining their game. I know attendance levels were at severe lows and that a lot of people wondered when, or if, they’d come back up. To me, though, I was just glad to see baseball again. Glad to have the chance to sit with my dad and learn about this game I was just starting to love. Plus, there was this young third baseman I thought was cute, so I didn’t have much time for anger.

I also don’t remember the way Tom Glavine was treated. Many years after the strike, when I would read about it, I learned how instrumental and vocal Glavine had been as one of the leaders of the player’s union. When he started playing again, he got it bad from fans, who, after hearing Glavine as the spokesman for the players, had someone they could direct their ire at. Knowing that, I have to say, I’m even more pleased with how Atlanta won the World Series in ‘95. To me, I think he was just doing his job, and it was likely unfair to target him.

But back to if it was good or not? I don’t know. Parity has been achieved to a certain extent, but not entirely. There are some large market teams, like the Yankees and the Red Sox and the Phillies who are consistently competitive. And there are small market teams, like the Royals and Pirates, who don’t seem to be able to get over that hump. However, I am very much aware that three of those teams I listed – the Red Sox, the Phillies, and the Pirates, to a certain extent – would prove that statement wrong this particular season. So like I said, it’s there, but not in its truest definition.

On the reverse, salaries are still going up. The luxury tax, created in place of the salary cap, doesn’t seem to function entirely as planned, particularly when you hear that recipients of (basically) Yankee tax money, such as the Marlins, are pocketing it and not using it to improve their clubs, as it was intended. Rich stay rich, give to poor, and the poor don’t share.

But that said, MLB doesn’t seem to be hurting for cash. Overall the league seems to be having a successful stretch. Attendance is back up and over pre-strike levels at most parks. The fans have forgave and moved forward. I can’t say the strike’s not in the back of my mind when I hear their collective bargaining agreement is up for negotiation again, and I imagine many fans feel the same way, but I don’t think about it all the time or feel betrayed in anyway. Of course, as I mentioned, I didn’t really live through it.

So, I’m undecided to be honest. I’ve always felt, in the sports world, there was a pendulum that swings between players and owners. The Pendulum of Power, if you will. And at different points in history, that pendulum has swayed toward one side or the other. At the time of the strike, it did seem like the owners were asking for too much from the players that they didn’t need and maybe that pendulum, or power, was too far on the owners’ side. Then the players had their strike, and it swung back to center. That’s essentially what these labor negotiations are, an attempt by both sides to retain control. And I think, after the strike, the power balance in baseball was more centered.

I suppose the only trick now is not letting that pendulum swing too far in favor of the players, as it seems to have done in the NBA, for example. Hopefully the players can keep the balance going.

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The Final Season: The Spice Girls, Halloween, and Fandom

Atlanta 10 – Chicago 3; CJ: 5-5, 4 RBI (33), SB (1) (!)

I feel another embarrassing post coming on. I think it’s because I’m so happy to see Chipper Jones have an amazing night and make one last All-Star team. I guess some other people, mainly Tony La Russa and MLB, though a future HoFer should be in his last All-Star game. I’m also thrilled that his final season has gone so well for him so far, at least from my perspective. His might think differently, given injuries and overall team performance, but my hope for him was only that he not to break in half during the season, and he’s not done that so far, so big plus!

Anyway, I feel like reminiscing about one of the many stupid things I did as a fan of Jones. The reminiscing actually started a few nights ago when I was eating dinner with a friend I’ve had for many, many years, and she brought up something we did when we were in, we think, 10th grade. We, along with three other friends, decided to be the Spice Girls for Halloween. This was circa 1997, so it wasn’t an entirely inane idea. Yet. But fairly close. (I’m already laughing at myself.) I was, big surprise, Sporty Spice. My costume included black adidas wind pants, the ones with the three white strips down both legs, which were a must have item at my high school. They had a zipper at the ankle, and when you wore them you had to leave the slit slightly open so they sorted of draped over your shoe. (I know it sounds strange, but it’s just an example of the many things we all did to try and conform to our budding social hierarchy.)

The rest of my costume was sneakers, my hair pulled back in a ponytail, and a white cropped shirt. The entire look was inspired by the ‘Say You’ll Be There’ video, which is, I think, really, a true classic among the Spice Girls music videos. (And now I’m just shaking my head. The things we do as misguided youth.)

Now, as to how this relates to my Chipper Jones fandom. I decided, in order to complete the look, that I’d writer ‘I ♥ Chipper’ on my bare midriff, because, obviously, there’s no better way to support your favorite athlete than writing their name on your gut.

I actually had forgotten about dressing as a Spice Girl until my friend reminded me. It’s funny that she’d bring it up now, as I’m chronicling my baseball life, but it’s not surprising.  Everyone was aware of my crush when I was younger, and I had a lot of people that supported the habit. For birthday presents, I got Chipper Jones posters and other kitschy knick-knacks. I have a couple “beanie-baby” teddy bears with his name on the back. I also have a miniature bat with his picture and name printed on it. I got a book about him once, too. Yep, many people supported my fandom over the years. My mother was perhaps my biggest enabler. She bought me an autographed baseball and picture of Chipper. Besides those items, I also have some general Atlanta Braves memorabilia: pennants and T-shirts and more posters. The best item of the whole bunch, though, is a ball signed my Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, and Steve Avery. (No offense, Chipper, but all four on one ball vs. just your signature? Sorry, but not contest.) Overall, a fairly impressive collection, if I do say so myself.

I’ve kept most of the items, although almost all of them are hidden away in secret niches and cubbyholes in the dark recesses of my closet. One thing I never got that I kind of always wanted as a kid was an official MLB jersey of Chipper’s, but then I realized how big they were and how they were really meant for grown men. An actual sized jersey would have drowned me. But maybe now that I’m older I’ll splurge and get one since it’s Chip’s last season – and he’s now an All-Star. But when could I ever wear it in Texas? Polyester? Man, I’d hate to be a Texas Ranger right now. When is MLB going to realize that’s not a good material to do physical activity in during the summer?

Anyway, all my friends and family, they all knew my allegiance. And when I did stupid things, write his name on my belly or ask my parents to rearrange our vacation plans for him (My Favorite Baseball Road Trip), they all teased me. But it never bothered me. Jones defended himself for me with the way he played. You can joke, but when a guy’s considered one of the best hitters in the league, it’s not going to mean much. Even with a name like ‘Chipper.’

The Final Season: The ’98 Homerun Race

Boston 8 – Atlanta 4; CJ: 1-4, RBI (26)

Yesterday I wrote about steroids in baseball, and in that post I mentioned briefly the ’98 homerun race. As I wrote in regard to steroids in baseball, I also perceive that race differently now than I did as a kid. I was 16 years old then (ok, not exactly a kid but young enough), and I was at the height of my baseball love. Chipper Jones’ imperfections were not public yet, and he was a routine All-Star and genuine superstar. Maddux-Glavine-and-Smoltz were winning Cy Young’s back-to-back, and the Braves were just plain winning. All the time. It was great.

Then along came Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, and homerun statistics started dropping like Central-Texas lake levels in summer. Most homeruns hit in a month, most hit at this point in the season, most by the All-Star break, etc. And the whole thing was great fun to watch! Homerun totals were on the rise, as the “live-ball era” was in full affect, but no player had yet to seriously flirt with Roger Maris’ 61. And now here were two guys doing it at once, just like Maris and Mantle had done in ’61.

Man, I enjoyed that season. I remember they seemed to hit them in bunches. They wouldn’t hit any in a few games, and then they’d go nuts and hit 5 in their next 7 at-bats. It was crazy like that. It almost always led SportsCenter, and I got to listen to Keith Olberman and Dan Patrick make all their quips about how far into the night the balls would travel.

It was exciting. Who was going to set the record? Would they both do it? Who would do it first? How many would they actually hit? You couldn’t wait to see every night where they were. And McGwire was this shy, seemingly nice guy that didn’t want any attention – the Maris of the two. And then there was Sosa, this loud, goofy kid that liked all eyes on him, sort of like Mantle. And they openly cheered for each other to succeed, even if they were in the same division. And, just like before, the soft spoken, focused guy did it. Well, did it first and ended up with 70 total. Awesome.

At least I thought it was awesome at the time. I look at it a little differently today, considering how both were essentially proven to have been on something. Mac openly, Sammy denying it. And maybe Sammy didn’t do it, but his physical transformation, combined with his unwillingness to speak about his own past to a congressional committee, doesn’t add up in his favor I don’t believe. Add in his confrontation with Rick Reilly over a surprise drug test, and the equation is pretty lopsided.

Speaking of that committee, the one that also got Roger Clemens, McGwire looked particularly deflated as he sat there getting, essentially, berated by the members of it. Usually when Congress does that to corrupt businessman, I don’t care. They have it coming. But this time, it made me sad to see.

But it made me angry more. Not at Congress (although I still don’t understand why they stepped into all this) but at the players. I was so angry at them for doing this. For cheating baseball. My baseball. For thinking they could cheat without consequences, without hurting anyone. And for taking records they didn’t deserve.

But, as I started to explain yesterday, I’m no longer angry. Just sad. For example, I just shake my head when I remember the “andro” controversy during the ’98 season, when McGwire claimed it was just a supplement after the reporter spotted it in his locker and asked him about it. Turns out it was a little more than that. For one, it had already been deemed illegal by the Olympics, who are usually on the frontlines of the battle against performance enhancing drugs. And sure enough, MLB later banned at for being, essentially, a steroid.

But I remember being so caught up in the homerun race that I didn’t care. I accepted it. I thought, well, if it isn’t banned by MLB, then it’s ok. He can take it. Besides, I just want to see him hit homeruns. I remember some of my friends questioning it, and I would argue it away, saying “It’s not against the rules.” And that was that for me.

I feel worse for the older fans, my dad’s age and older. Guys that grew up loving baseball like I did, only they watched Mantle in his prime. And Mays. And Aaron. Man, oh man, to have been alive then. They saw real homerun hitters. What it must have been like for them, sitting back and watching these behemoths, these giants with bulging muscles, taking down homerun records they saw made. Do they feel cheated? Disgusted? Angry? Sad? Robbed? Could they enjoy it as much as I did? Did they watch with as much excitement and joy as did? Or did they know, in the back of their minds, that something wasn’t right about this? I wonder. I should ask my Dad I suppose. I feel cheated, and I didn’t even see Mantle play. So I imagine the older generations did just a bit.

I still say, in some ways, it was a great season, even if it’s now tainted. It got me even more excited about baseball than I had been before, and I wasn’t the only one. The ’98 season did a lot for the game, helping it to regain some much needed popularity. It helped people fall in love with baseball again, and I really enjoyed watching it. I still like watching the replays of the homeruns. They make me smile, but then I step back, and I’m saddened by it again. But that’s baseball. Gotta take the good with the bad.

The Final Season: Getting in the Groove

New York 3 – Braves 2; CJ: 1-4, BB

I watched tonight’s game with my Dad. That means the Braves were destined to loose. Seriously, it’s uncanny how much they lose when I decide to make a special trip over to my folks’ place to catch a game. (Did I mention I watched them last night?) Good thing it doesn’t happen all that often.

Anyway, let’s keep on the pitching track for another post and discuss the phenomenon known as ‘settling down/in.’ Take tonight’s game. A few bad pitches from Hudson were the difference. The first so-so tosses came in the first inning, when he gave up a couple hits that led to the first Yankee run. Then, over the next four innings, he gives up a total of two hits and no runs. (He reverted back in the 6th inning, but that’s not what we’re discussing.) Some would call that a ‘slow start,’ meaning he was pitching out of trouble in the first (or so) inning, then he ‘settled down’ and found his control and his timing. Basically, he goes from giving up multiple hits to getting everybody out.

Why is that? Why do all pitchers seem to need time to “settle down/in”?

I think I might know part of the answer. Before the game, a starting pitcher’s been warming up and getting ready, psyching himself up and getting the adrenaline flowing. Then comes live competition, which nothing can compare to. The adrenaline spikes as the excitement builds. The result is the pitcher gets a little more blood flowing, grips the ball a little tighter, goes through his motion a split second too quickly, and ends up not making his pitches. Once the adrenaline wears off and you realize you’ve got potentially eight or nine more innings you’re going to be out there, you relax and just do your thing. At least that’s what I think.

But it seems to be a very, very common occurrence in baseball, unlike in other sports. Sure, quarterbacks come out and maybe airmail their first pass, or basketball players miss their first couple shots. But that’s it. They don’t seem to, like clockwork, struggle to get into a groove, often times putting their teams in a position to loose. That airmailed football pass doesn’t lead to three runs. Well, worst case scenario, maybe a touchdown, which would hurt, but it rarely happens. A simple INT is more common and then your defense has to take off their baseball hats earlier than they want to. Same in basketball. That missed shot – rebound. Back on defense. No big deal.

But a fastball with no movement that catches a lot of the plate? The opposition loves that because it’s probably going to lead to a homerun and now your team is down by three. Luckily, Hudson’s slow start today only caused Atlanta one run. But this concept of the ‘slow start’ happens, I would say, daily. Maybe not three runs, or even two or one. But at least once a day a starting pitcher struggles to get out of the first or second inning, running up his pitch count, and limiting his effectiveness for the rest of the game. I guess that’s baseball, though.

The Braves old starting three used to do it all the time. All of three of them, with Glavine being the worst, followed by Mad Dog and then Smoltzie. They all struggled to get out of the first couple innings. But when they did, it was game over. So for me, as a fan, those first couple innings were crucial, and stressful. But I felt like, after those innings, I could tell how the game was going to go. If Tommy got through the first couple relatively unscathed, it was going to be a rough day for the opponent. A victory was almost guaranteed. But if it was a struggle, and he gave up a handful of runs, they would lose because the Braves offense never was one to score a bunch of runs to get the comeback win. Those first few innings set the tone maybe 75% of the time, I swear (allowing for memory embellishment).

Of course, there were times when they’d start out well and loose it in the end, but they were rare. And there were the times when Atlanta managed to rally from behind, but I also seem to remember those being uncommon. And perhaps that’s why I have a heightened sensitivity to ‘settling down/in,’ because I became so aware of it as a young fan.

But, again, I guess that’s just baseball. The game of inches where one single pitch can change an entire season. Here’s hoping the Braves pitchers this season settle in quickly and with few runs allowed in the process.

The Final Season: Greg Maddux

Blue Jays 12 – Atlanta 4; CJ 0-3, BB

On Friday I blogged about John Smoltz, then yesterday I wrote a post about Tom Glavine. Let’s see, what, or who, could I possibly be discussing today? Hmm….

You know, if I’m honest, Greg Maddux was always my favorite of the Big Three. (BTW, referring to them as ‘The Big Three’ is a new thing for me. I don’t recall them being called that when I was kid, but I might just be forgetting. In my memory, they were always just Maddux-Glavine-and-Smoltz.) As a kid watching, I thought he was the most dominant, the most impressive to watch. He caused my eyes to bug out and mouth to drop open in amazement more often than the others. The way he hit his spots, man. I never saw anyone more accurate with his location. Ever. Again, I’m by no means the foremost authority on baseball, but I do know I could tell when I watched him that no one else pitched like he did.

The best part was, as my dad used to say, he didn’t throw hard enough to break a pane of glass. Okay, yeah, he probably did, but his pitches weren’t much stronger than that. They resided comfortably in the 80 mph range. Yet, he struck out his fair share of batters. How? Here’s a hint: it wasn’t by overpowering them. But he didn’t need to blow anything by hitters. He simply threw it where they couldn’t hit it, thanks to the late movement he was able to create that made it impossible for batters to make solid contact. Depending on what he wanted a pitch to do, he could start it out over the plate and then make it dive out of the zone. Or his pitches would start a good foot outside, then a couple feet from the plate – and I’m not exaggerating – they would cut back in for a strike. It was really, really impressive.

Eddie Perez, who caught him for the majority of his time in Atlanta, was, in my opinion, also a reason for his success. The way he caught Maddux made his control look god-like. Perez could set-up, show the spot with his glove, and not move. Not an inch. Because he didn’t have to. If that’s where the ball was supposed to go, that’s where Maddux delivered it. Without fail.

Well, sometimes fail. When Maddux wasn’t hitting his spots perfectly, and that did happen occasionally, Perez also did a great job of ‘framing’ pitches. He had the ability to snatch pitches outside the strike zone and quickly reposition them back in the zone. Or he’d catch them on the edge of his glove, moving it just slightly, so it looked like the pitch had hit its mark. For whatever reason, when a pitch would hit, or would seem to hit, the exact spot Perez had setup for, the umps had a tendency to call it a strike, even if it technically wasn’t. Perhaps they were just as impressed by Maddux as I was.

Success for Maddux was also about keeping the ball down, and the consistency with which he induced ground balls. It wasn’t uncommon for him to get 20+ of 27 outs on ground balls. Seriously. I remember if hitters were popping up, he would likely have a rough outing. And by rough, I mean he might give up more than one run. But he was definitely known as a groundball pitcher, and that was a way to gauge his success.

It must have been frustrating as a hitter to face Maddux. Here’s this pitch, coming at you at only 80 mph, and it doesn’t appear to be moving much, so of course you can hit. Wrong. You’d swing and make contact just enough to hit it weakly back to the mound, which was a place you didn’t want to hit it. Not only could Maddux pitch, he could field his position better than any other pitcher. He won 18 Gold Gloves in his career. 18!

And I loved to watch him pitch because it never stopped being impressive how dominate he could be. I’ll never forget what I consider to be the best game I ever saw him pitch. It wasn’t in the playoffs or in September. It was just a random day in July in 1997, a day game against the Cubs during summer break. I remember because my mom wanted me to play outside, but I wouldn’t. Not with the Braves on TV. I sat inside, with the sun shining bright outside, and watched Maddux pitch a complete game on 76 pitches, 63 of which were strikes. Did you catch that? 76 pitches thrown in nine innings! That’s unreal. Some guys throw 40 just to get through one inning. I think the game was done in two hours. That probably made my mom happy, as I still had plenty of time to play outside.

But I’ll never forget that game. He was unbelievable. Probably 90% of his outs were on groundballs, and the Cubs couldn’t do anything against him. But the 76 pitches. That’s the most amazing part. I think he had other instances in his career of throwing under 100 pitches for a complete game, and he did complete a good number of them, but the 76 has to be the lowest total, though. It’s stuff of legend, really, and I will treat it as such when I retell this amazing feat in the future.

So, for my money, Maddux was the best pitcher I’ve yet to see pitch in my lifetime (and I’ve seen him in person) in my years as a baseball fan.

The Final Season: Tom Glavine

Atlanta 5 – Toronto 2; CJ: DNP

Yesterday I reminisced about John Smoltz’ career (John Smoltz), and it was pretty fun, so… why stop there? How about I discuss another awesome “Big Three” member .one Mr. Tom Glavine?

He was the best left-handed pitcher I ever saw pitch growing up. Honestly. He also absolutely lived, and sometimes died, on the outside corner. That’s where he got most of his strikeouts, and probably all of his looking strikeouts for sure. And if it wasn’t a strikeout, it was a weak grounder or fly ball that the hitter managed to make contact with off the end of the bat. He could really paint that corner like no one else.

He was similar to Maddux in that sense, in that he was successful because of location, location, location. He didn’t overpower you or fool you with fancy stuff. He threw it where you couldn’t hit it, or at least couldn’t hit it well. He wasn’t as great as Maddux at hitting his spots, but he was close. Maddux threw more inside, too, if I remember correctly. I could be wrong. Though.

However, I do remember how the announcers used to always talk about the way Tommy Glavine would nibble away at that outside corner. He’d throw his first pitch just off the plate for a strike, and as the game went on, he inched his pitches out further and further, until sometimes you could swear he was getting strike calls on pitches that were a good six inches off the plate. Used to drive hitters crazy. They’re looking at a single pitch and can tell how far outside it is, but the home plate ump has been squatting there for two hours. He almost can’t help it if Glavine’s pushed his strike zone out. It’s like how you don’t see when your kid had grown up because you see them everyday. Then you see a picture of how you see them and realize the picture’s from two years ago, meaning he or she really doesn’t look like that anymore.

And Glavine almost always got that call. It seems to me he could hit that outside corner when facing both left-handed and right-handed batters, too. He did bust lefties more inside, but he could do that to a right-hander as well. He was good, really good. However, it was more of a subtle good. Let me see if I can explain myself….

Half way through a Maddux-pitched game, I would realize I was watching domination. You could see it. With Glavine, nothing like that sticks out to me. What sticks out to me is when I would look up and realize the game was already in the 8th, and he’d still only given up one run on three hits. You didn’t always realize it sometimes, how great a day he was having. It wasn’t that Maddux was flashier, as he was pretty much the opposite of flash. It was just that Glavine was so consistently methodical that you were almost lulled to sleep by it. Then, BAM! Game over, Braves win.

I do remember very clearly one game he dominated, and I imagine you can guess which one. The World Series clincher. I thought it was beyond fitting, which I might have said before and will definitely say again, that the Braves won a World Series with a 1-0 game. No better way for it to happen. It cements the importance of that pitching staff to that team’s success all those years.

That particular night I remember watching him and actually realizing early he was having a good night. While I probably was too young to really know what I was seeing, I could tell something from his demeanor, something from the way his pitches were hitting that glove, that it was going to be a good night for him. And, as the only member of the big three to be drafted by the Braves, he seemed the best candidate of the three to be the team hero.

I have to say something else about Glavine. He could hit. He wasn’t great at it, but he was good, which for a pitcher is kind of like saying great – you know what I mean? I remember him coming in to pinch hit occasionally, usually during extra-inning games when the benches were getting light. And he could definitely bunt, which he did consistently well. Having a pitcher that can do what you need when you need it at the plate is like yummy icing on the cake. The thick, sugary kind.

One final thought on Glavine. Rarely did a game go by that I wasn’t reminded that he was apparently a great hockey player. Drafter by the NHL, even, but chose baseball. Also, he was a great golfer. Not the best of the “Big Three,” but certainly one of the better ones on the team as a whole.

Yep, seemed like there was little Glavine couldn’t do consistently well. I know I enjoyed watching him pitch, watching him wear out that corner. I know where his pitch was most likely going, and the most likely outcome of the at bat, but it was far from boring for me. But I suppose winning rarely is.

The Final Season: John Smoltz

Atlanta 4 – Toronto 3 in 10; CJ: DNP

John Smoltz was inducted into the Braves Hall of Fame today, which culminated in his number being retired. #29. No future Brave will ever wear that number. Congrats, Smoltzie, and certainly well deserved.

For most of my devotion to the Braves, Smoltz was a starting pitcher. If I remember correctly, he was much more a power pitcher than Glavine or Maddux, with a dominant fastball that he used along with a couple impressive off-speed pitches. He was a Cy Young winner and an 8-time All-Star. I think he could have won more Cy Young’s, but I seem to remember Atlanta having trouble scoring runs for him, which seemed to perennially keep his win total down compared to the Other Two. That could be my memory embellishing things, though. In my mind, they have trouble scoring runs for anyone that’s pitched for them.

Something my memory is pretty clear on is that he was automatic, just like Maddux and Glavine. When he started a game, you could expect that he wasn’t going to give up a lot of runs, that he was going to strikeout a good number of people, and that he was going to keep it close for his team.

Pause for just a moment and try to imagine what it was like in the late ‘90s to sit down and watch Braves games. The majority of the time one of those three would be pitching, and they would likely win. Winning in those years was automatic. And if they weren’t winning, they were close to it. Rarely, rarely did they get blown out, something that made for good, exciting games. You can probably understand why then I, to this day, enjoy a good pitchers duel more than a one-sided blow out or an offensive explosion. They were drummed into me with the ferocity of a Smoltz four-seam fastball.

One of the most impressive things to me, though, about Smoltz was, when he struggled with injuries in the second half of his career, he managed to recreate himself as a closer. And not just any closer, but one of the best in the game. He’s the only pitcher in history with 200 wins and 150 saves in a career.

Those years of him coming out of the bullpen were strange to me, though. While I respected and admired what he was doing, there was always something a little off when I saw Smoltzie come in just for the ninth. There was something not quite right about him just blasting a few fastballs by people until it was game over. It worked, but… it didn’t. Like a slightly out of tune piano.

He was a starter. Everyone could see that. And you could just sense that was what he wanted to be. So I wasn’t surprised when he eventually became a starter again. He really only pitched three full seasons from the pen, a fact that makes his 154 saves all the more remarkable. Averaging 50 a season – that’s what the very best closers in the league hope to do. But in 2005, with Maddux and Glavine both gone and guys like Mike Hampton and Tim Hudson now making up the core of the rotation, he got his chance. He started for them consistently until injury got him again in 2008.

Then he would, sadly, leave Atlanta, too. That was a sad day for me, when I heard he was signed by the Red Sox. The core of the team I had cheered for over the previous two decades was almost completely dismantled.

It was even sadder, though, when the Red Sox released him. Seeing one of your favorite players at the end of his line and being starkly reminded how dispensable we all are can drive a person to do stupid things (like blog every game of a baseball season). I mean, he’s a future Hall-of-Famer, and he got… released. Ouch.

At his peak, though, he was incredibly dominant for Atlanta. I remember I liked watching him pitch because he was a nice change of pace from Maddux and Glavine. While they beat you with their pinpoint accuracy, he blew it by you and fooled you. It was a different strategy and approach that seemed to fit him.

I also liked the personality he seemed to have, on and off the mound. Maddux and Glavine always had the same expression, same stoicism. I like to think they had the same expression on the mount that they did when their children were born or when they were getting their prostates checked. Not a lot of emotion. Smoltz was different. He liked to pump his fist and yell – both in joy and frustration.

He also seemed to be a “good guy.” One of those teammates everyone seemed to like. The kind that joked around and liked to pull pranks on people. Someone that laughs and smiles a lot and keeps the team lose, and those people are always important.

I remember he was willing to be self-deprecating, too. The first time he faced Maddux after they were no longer teammates, he seemed to bow to him on the mound and flashed him his bald spot. Maddux remained poker faced and then promptly got his first hit of that season. You could tell from Smoltz’s expression after that he wasn’t very pleased. Maddux couldn’t exactly hit, and that’s saying it nicely.

But, for the most part, he always appeared to be having fun. And just because his name is often mentioned last when it comes to the “Big 3,” he was certainly not any less of a pitcher than the other two. Like I said before – different approach, equally effective. And always fun to watch.