Only in Atlanta would a résumé such as Smoltz's go relatively unnoticed. He was the youngest All-Star pitcher in Braves history (22, in 1989), tied Spahn's franchise record with 15 strikeouts in a nine-inning game in '92, set the record for most career strikeouts (46) in National League Championship Series play and has lost only once in 13 postseason starts, putting together a 5-1 record and a 2.76 ERA. While Glavine deserves praise for playing McCartney to Maddux's Lennon, Smoltz, at week's end, had as many complete games as Glavine (33, in 32 fewer career starts) and a lifetime ERA that was almost the same (3.46 to Glavine's 3.45).
Since his elbow surgery after the strike-shortened 1994 season, Smoltz is 23-8 with a 2.88 ERA in 41 starts. Impressive? Been there, done that. Between the 1991 and '92 All-Star games, Smoltz was 22-8 with a 2.85 ERA in 37 starts. Says Glavine, "People expected him to win 30 games and strike out 500 guys. They'd ask, 'What's wrong with John?' Every pitcher in baseball would love to have bad years like he's had."
Even Smoltz acknowledges that his current hot streak has been charmed. The Braves scored at least seven runs for him in one stretch of seven starts. (They gave him that kind of support only three times last season.) When he was scheduled to pitch on just three days' rest last week in Chicago against the Cubs, a deluge postponed the game. The next afternoon a fully rested Smoltz pitched with a 25-mph wind whipping in from Wrigley Field's outfield. Smoltz blew away the Cubs with a four-hit shutout that included 13 punch-outs, after which Chicago manager Jim Riggleman said, "He looked as good as I've ever seen him."
Smoltz is so hot that Ed McMahon should be ringing his doorbell any day now. Nothing topped the serendipity of his victory on May 24 in Pittsburgh against the Pirates. Smoltz was losing 2-0 when Atlanta manager Bobby Cox pulled him for a pinch hitter with two outs and nobody on base in the seventh inning. A walk, three singles and an error later, the Braves had scored three runs and handed Smoltz a 5-3 win, as well as a bottle of champagne in honor of his 100th career victory. Smoltz stopped giggling long enough to tell Maddux, whose four straight Cy Young Awards hardly qualify him as needy, "Rub me—for luck."
"No, Smoltzie," Maddux said. "You keep it. You deserve it."
Smoltz sipped champagne, slung his ever-present golf bag over his shoulder and bounced out of the clubhouse with a smile plastered on his face. Picture Tom Sawyer with a titanium driver instead of a fishing pole. "Look at him," said Braves shortstop Jeff Blauser. "He's going so good, his biggest worry is whether to use a balata or a wound ball."
That Smoltz would be so fortuitous is something of a good howl in itself, given all the cruel twists in his career. He is, after all, the guy who threw 7⅓ shutout innings in the seventh game of the 1991 World Series, only to lose a chance at a victory when teammate Lonnie Smith ran the bases like a British cow in the eighth inning. Then again, Smoltz could have wound up as an accordion player.
Both of Smoltz's parents, Mary and John Sr., play the accordion. John Sr., who also worked as an usher at Tiger Stadium, played at Detroit's 1968 World Series victory party. John Jr. began playing the accordion at four and developed into a prodigy. He could play a tune after hearing it once, even though he could not read music. Growing up in Lansing, Mich., he won accordion-playing contests in places as far away as Chicago.
"What I remember," he says, "is being on stages and getting trophies. And I remember all the people. I remember a hundred people watching me. I used to throw up before I played. By the time I was seven, I'd had it. I hated to practice. I told my parents, 'That's it. I don't want to play this thing any more.' "
"If you don't want to play the accordion," his mom asked him then, "what will you do when you grow up?"