ATLANTA—Starting pitchers, particularly during the winter months, take on qualities of ladies at closing time. Sang Mickey Gilley, “They all begin to look like movie stars.” Yet when tomorrow morning comes over the course of the upcoming campaign, teams, like barflies, will begin to realize in these days of five-man rotations that true number one starters are rarer than steak tartare.
Throughout most of the 1990s and early in the current decade, Braves manager Bobby Cox had the unthinkable. Not only did the skipper guide the Braves to 14 consecutive playoff appearances by winning 14 division titles—both professional sports records—he did so with the help of three aces. More than sixty percent of the time, Cox was able to pencil in righthanders John Smoltz and Greg Maddux and lefty Tom Glavine and know much more often than not his team would emerge on the right end of the scoreboard.
“Having three guys like that spoils you,” Cox said. “You realize at the time how fortunate you are to have three pitchers of that caliber. But when you look back and realize how they were in the prime of their careers, it’s really quite remarkable.”
Aside from strike-shortened 1994, when the postseason was canceled, the Braves made the playoffs every season Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz played together. Maddux won 176 games in the 1990s, more than any other pitcher during that span. Glavine ranked second with 164 triumphs; Smoltz tied Kevin Brown for fifth with 143.
“Simply stated, the Braves during the 1990s had the greatest pitching staffs in the history of baseball,” said author Bill James, who also serves as a senior baseball operations advisor with the Red Sox. “And I’m quite certain nobody else has ever had three pitchers like Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz together for a sustained period of years.”
Since then, the trio has continued to pitch well. Maddux has added 126 wins—10 more than Glavine—over the past eight seasons. Smoltz missed 2000 after tearing the medial collateral ligament in his right elbow during spring training, then spent four seasons as a reliever, notching 154 saves. He returned to the rotation in 2005 and has won 44 games over the last three seasons.
“For us to continue to have success at the ages we are reaffirms to people how special that group of guys really was,” said the 41-year-old Glavine, who is three weeks older than Maddux and nearly 14 months older than Smoltz. “It just kind of adds to the legend, so to speak, of that threesome when people talk about it.”
Working For A Living
Maddux, the Cubs’ second-round pick in 1984, debuted in the major leagues on Sespt. 3, 1986 as a pinch-runner. A year later he went 6-14, 5.61 before posting 18 victories and a 3.18 ERA in 1988, thanks largely to the improvement of his curveball and changeup. That started his current string of 20 consecutive seasons with at least 13 victories, a streak that snapped Cy Young’s major league record of 19 straight.
By the early 1990s, Maddux emerged as the game’s best and most cerebral hurler. He won four straight Cy Young Awards from 1992-95, the first with Chicago prior to signing as a free agent with Atlanta. In his initial three seasons with the Braves, the righthander posted a combined 55-18 record with a 1.89 ERA. He also won Game One of the 1995 World Series, the same year Atlanta claimed its lone championship since moving from Milwaukee after the 1965 season.
Though never a hard thrower, Maddux has consistently confused batters and hit his spots with his pinpoint control. He is the only pitcher in major league history to win 300 games and strike out 3,000 batters without issuing 1,000 walks in his career. What’s more, he has proven to be the quintessential complete player by winning a record 17 Gold Gloves while stroking 266 hits.
One other aspect contributing to Maddux’s 347 career wins, good for ninth on the all-time list, is his ability to remain on an even keel while on the mound. That was not always the case, as evidenced by his nickname, “Mad Dog.”
“Other than my at-bats, I have no control over the runs we’re going to score,” Maddux told Baseball America in 1994. “But I can control the pitches I make, how I handle my mechanics, how I control my frame of mind. That’s what benefited me most, and that’s when I realized that I can’t control what happens outside of my pitching.”
Maddux’ stoicism is similar to Glavine’s workmanlike manner on the mound. The lefthander debuted in the big leagues in 1987, three years after he turned down an opportunity to play professional hockey and signed with the Braves as a second-round pick. He helped guide Atlanta to its first World Series in 1991 by winning his first of two Cy Young Awards, and earned World Series MVP honors in 1995.
After winning 242 games with the Braves, Glavine signed as a free agent with the Mets prior to the 2003 season and proceeded to post a 61-56, 3.97 mark over five years in New York. A five-time 20-game winner, the southpaw followed Maddux in the 300-win club on Aug. 5, 2007, and concluded 2007 with 303 triumphs, fourth-highest among lefthanded pitchers in major league history.
The key to Glavine’s long-term effectiveness has centered on his ability to adjust. Once known for pounding the outside black of the plate, he had to alter his approach by pitching inside more when umpires began receiving performance grades based on QuesTec reports.
“Perseverance has played a significant role in the three of us pitching as well as we have for as long as we have,” Glavine said. “When I had to make the adjustments a few years ago, it was not an easy thing to do at that point in my career. And I take a lot of pride in the adjustments I was able to make.”
Smoltz, meanwhile, has faced the greatest challenges, at least from a physical standpoint. Acquired from the Tigers in exchange for pitcher Doyle Alexander during the 1987 pennant race, Smoltz arrived in the big leagues as the National League’s youngest player in 1988 with a blazing fastball and a hard, nasty slider. He showed signs of greatness during his first seven-plus seasons with Atlanta, yet was plagued with inconsistency, caused in part by ailments that have led to four elbow operations, including reconstructive surgery.
Yet for all of the roadblocks, which led to his moving to the bullpen for four seasons from 2001-04, the eight-time all-star has 207 career wins and joins Dennis Eckersley as the lone pitchers in baseball history with 200 victories and 150 saves. He moved into 16th place on the all-time list last season with 2,976 strikeouts, one year after he tied for the NL lead with 16 wins. Smoltz also tops the charts with 15 career postseason triumphs.
“The one thing I can look back on in my career and say I never cheated myself is the effort,” said Smoltz after winning the 1996 Cy Young Award when he went 24-8, 2.94. “My stubbornness cost me a lot of losses. It didn’t cost me a lot of wins. When I wasn’t feeling real good, when I knew I should have come out of a game or sat out, I didn’t.”
More To Come
For all of their success, the three 40-somethings are looking to add to their resumes in 2008. On the same day Glavine was reunited with Smoltz and the Braves by signing a one-year deal for $8 million, the Padres announced they had secured Maddux for at least a second season for $10 million. At the press conference announcing his return, Glavine was adamant that putting on an Atlanta uniform again had nothing to do with just running a victory lap.
“Had I looked at this organization and felt they didn’t have a chance to win and this was just a trip down memory lane, no, I wouldn’t have played,” Glavine said. “At this point in my career, I don’t need that. I feel like I have some things left in my tank.”
Glavine also admitted he has given considerable thought to his life after baseball. So, too, have Maddux and Smoltz, even though the competitive fires refuse to let an ounce of energy go unburned. There has even been talk that the three might depart the mound at the same time, which could set the stage for an interesting induction ceremony five years later in Cooperstown.
“I don’t think any of us want to get ahead of things, but yeah, that would be really special,” Smoltz said.
Not to mention appropriate.