Editor’s Note: The great Braves pitchers of the 1990s and 2000s were not just individual standouts but also part of overwhelming staffs. The trio that first took the Braves to the top featured Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery. Avery eventually gave way to Greg Maddux as Avery’s career was derailed by injury, but the same attitude that pervaded the staff for years to come was obvious in this Baseball America cover story from October 1992, by longtime BA contributor Bill Ballew. A version of this story also appears in Baseball America’s 2014 Hall of Fame Commemorative magazine, along with lots of other stories and photos about this year’s inductees and honorees, and a celebration of the Hall of Fame’s 75th anniversary. You can find the magazine on newsstands now or purchase directly from us. You can also get a digital version of the mag from your favorite digital newsstand.
ATLANTA—An old-fashioned shootout is taking place in the National League West, and it’s all centered in the Atlanta clubhouse.
With Cincinnati limping along a comfortable half-dozen or so games behind the first-place Braves since the middle of August, “The Young Guns,” namely Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery, are engaged in a fierce, three-way battle for dominance. The stage for these bouts ranges from the diamond to the golf course, but the goal is always the same: to outperform the other two.
“There’s competition between us,” Glavine says. “We’re always trying to outdo each other, no matter what it is.”
“They’re always seen together and they feed off each other,” pitching coach Leo Mazzone says. “They’re constantly trying to outperform each other in a real good way. It’s friendly competition, but they’re serious about it.”
The first battle of the season was to determine the best hitter of the three. But with less than five weeks remaining, Smoltz and Avery had conceded the crown to Glavine, who was hitting 100 points higher with a .257 average.
“Tom’s having a good year at the plate, and he’s a little cocky up there right now. But I still think I’m the best hitter in the group,” said Avery, a .550 hitter as a high school senior.
Not to be outdone, Smoltz and Avery, both natives of Michigan, looked for other fights to pick and began a contest using innings pitched as the barometer. This race is much closer, with Smoltz’s 211 innings leading the way, 15 ahead of Glavine and 16 in front of Avery.
“Smoltzie is unbelievable,” catcher Greg Olson says. “No matter what is going on, he has to have a piece in it. Once Tommy started running away with the batting contest, John starts getting on Glav about innings pitched. He has to get an edge somehow, somewhere or he feels he isn’t trying hard enough.”
It’s not as if these pitchers are unconcerned about the primary task at hand, which is to win games for their employer. Far from it. In fact, their competitions are almost a game within the game, and the more success a pitcher has in one area, the more prosperity he has overall.
“Sometimes we don’t say it, but we wish the best for each other,” says Glavine, who has paced the NL in wins for most of the season. “If we each do well, that means the team is winning and that’s what we want.”
“We’ve had several win streaks and shutout streaks this year and no one wants to be the one that ends it,” Avery says. “When Glav or Smoltzie throws a shutout, I want to do the same thing. It helps us concentrate and focus on what we have to do.”
Despite their camaraderie and subsequent success, these guys aren’t identical triplets, a fact driven home on any given afternoon in the clubhouse.
|Glavine popped up on Baseball America’s radar in June 1986, when BA contributor Larry Fleming wrote about Glavine in the Double-A Southern League:|
|“It has been said Greenville’s Tom Glavine could be the best lefthanded pitching prospect in the minor leagues, that he could be the next lefthander on manager Chuck Tanner’s staff and could wind up in the big leagues by year end. It has been said Glavine, barely 20, is mature beyond his years. ‘All of that is true,’ farm director Hank Aaron said. ’We think Tom is definitely a major league prospect. He goes about his business in the right way. He has gotten everybody’s attention here, not only me but (general manager) Bobby Cox and Tanner, too.’ ”|
In the center of the room, Smoltz religiously plays cards with Olson and veteran pitcher Charlie Liebrandt. Avery is up to typical mischief, whether finding a new pair of socks to load with itching powder or replacing an unsuspecting rookie’s casual shoes with high-heeled, platform models. Glavine, meanwhile, sits at his locker doing his two millionth interview with a Bart Simpson doll perched overhead.
“I think what makes my job so much fun is each one of them has a different personality,” Olson says. Yet they share a tremendous competitive spirit in common.
“I think Tommy’s the best competitor in baseball,” Mazzone says, “and John and Steve are right there close behind.”
Of the three, the lefthanded Glavine is the most low-key but perhaps the most aggressive. He takes what many refer to as a hockey mentality to the mound every game and won’t give in to a single batter.
“Because of the way I carry myself, a lot of people think that I don’t have fun doing what I’m doing,” Glavine says. “It’s just that I take what I do seriously. I work hard to be the best that I can be.”
In many ways, fellow southpaw Avery is much like Glavine in that he shows little emotion once he pulls his cap practically over his eyes and heads to the mound. But off the field, the 22-year-old is the class clown, often joining outfielder Deion Sanders to pull a prank.
“I like to have fun,” Avery says. “I like to stay loose. It’s a long year and we enjoy ourselves by coming to the park. On the other hand, when it’s my turn to pitch, I like the guys to know that I’m going to go out there and give it all I have.”
Smoltz, meanwhile, is the most animated of the three.
“I’m very, very competitive, and I want to win no matter what,” Smoltz says. “Sometimes I show my emotions. I’ve been working on not showing them as much and trying to become internally confident. But I still let people know I’m happy after the last out of the game has been recorded
Regardless of the approach, success has been the recent end result. Through the first five months of the 1992 season, Glavine, Avery and Smoltz combined for 43 wins, the most of any threesome in the majors.
Life wasn’t always so rosy for the Braves. Each of the young hurlers suffered through some early turbulence during his early years, beginning with Glavine in 1988.
The lefty was Atlanta’s second-round draft pick in 1984 and made his big league debut late in 1987 with a 2-4, 5.54 record. A year later he was in the rotation and discovered how rough on-the-job training can be, going 7-17, 4.56 during Atlanta’s 106-loss campaign.
“That season has helped me out a lot mentally,” says the 26-year-old Glavine, who won 44 games between 1989-91. “To go through that wasn’t a lot of fun, but it made me a better pitcher and a stronger person. It made me learn a lot of things that I wasn’t capable of doing as a pitcher, and it made me start doing things I needed to in order to win.”
Glavine made his big league debut about the same time as then-general manager Bobby Cox made the best deal of his career. Cox shipped disruptive Doyle Alexander to the Tigers on Aug. 12, 1987, for a 20-year-old Class A minor leaguer, Smoltz.
While Atlanta gained some respectability in the first half of 1991, Smoltz, the lone positive note over the previous two years, struggled with his confidence and control. By the all-star break, he was 2-11, 5.16 and showing little hope for improvement.
During the three-day break, Smoltz’s career took a turn for the better. He began consultations with sports psychologist Jack Llewellyn, who helped him focus on one pitch at a time. The result was a 12-2 second half, including the victory in the team’s division clincher on Oct. 5.
“If you don’t learn from those experiences, I don’t know how you can learn,” says Smoltz, 25. “We may not have had a good team for a couple of years, but at the same time we were pretty raw. And we made the adjustments not only to stay in the big leagues but to be successful, which was the key.”
Avery agrees that making adjustments was of utmost importance after his 3-11, 5.64 major league initiation in 1990. The former first-round pick says he also had the advantage of having the knowledge and support of Glavine and Smoltz, who had experienced the same struggles.
“The Braves threw me into the fire because they realized I was the kind of person not to get down on myself,” Avery says. “We all took our lumps and learned a couple of things from the experience.”
“Overcoming adversity gives you the pitcher you are looking for,” Mazzone says. “You have to see how he is going to react once he hits a few problem areas. When he comes back and responds well, you got yourself a great pitcher, and I think we have three examples of that here.”
There’s little debate that Glavine, Smoltz and Avery join Leibrandt in forming baseball’s best starting rotation.
Glavine, who won a franchise-record 13 straight decisions this summer, is on the verge of recording his second straight 20-win season and is vying for another Cy Young Award after back-to-back starts in the All-Star Game. Smoltz has been the best righthander in the NL since July 1991, posting a 26-12, 2.85 record.
“I think this group is the greatest talent that a pitching coach could ever have,” Mazzone says.
“We take pride in being referred to as one of the best starting staffs in the majors,” Smoltz says. “We all feel like we could be the No. 1 starter on any team. We just try to thrive off each other’s performance and stay consistent.”
For these guys, that refers to their performance on the field and off, including their 7 a.m. golf outings while on the road. And though Smoltz may be the king of the links with his five handicap, it doesn’t keep Glavine and Avery from trying to shoot him down.
“I don’t want to admit that he’s better than me at golf, even though I know he is,” Glavine says. “I just have to keep practicing and getting better.”