A bad trade set up the best deal the Braves ever made, consummated Aug. 12, 1987.
On July 6, 1986, the Braves, 4 games out of first, traded promising right-hander Duane Ward for 35-year-old sourpuss Doyle Alexander, who was hardly a difference-maker. The Bravos finished in last place, while Ward would go on to save 121 games for the Blue Jays.
But he was no John Smoltz.
Nearing the end of another lost season, Bobby made Alexander available. The Tigers, locked in a tight race for the AL East title, made no secret of their interest but were reluctant to part with Steve Searcy, a highly touted southpaw.
[John] Hagemann, now a scout for the Phillies, was the Braves’ scout in the Northeast for decades. He saw Smoltz pitch just twice for Glens Falls: once in a bullpen session, another time in a game. Yet the report that he submitted changed the career of a pitcher and the course of two franchises.
“I think my words were, ‘The best arm I’ve seen so far,’” said Hagemann. “Top-of-the-rotation guy. That’s how I saw him. I’m not a genius. I just recall a real live arm.”
Hagemann, in fact, said that Smoltz was not on the initial list of names that he was sent to Glens Falls to scout.
“(The Tigers) gave us about three or four names (of trade candidates). I went in and watched them in about a three or four game series. I didn’t like any of the names that they gave us,” said Hagemann. “(Smoltz) showed me just a great arm. He was raw at the time, but showed me a real live fastball, really good stuff. I called (Cox) and I said, ‘Bobby, I would just try to get Smoltz.’
“He said, ‘Smoltz—who the hell is he?’ I said, ‘He’s just an outstanding arm here.’
“(Cox) called back about 30 minutes later,” Hagemann continued. “He said, ‘John, they’re willing to give him up. Should we do that?’ I said, ‘Yeah, absolutely—you’ll be real happy you got this kid.’ The rest is history.”
Smoltzie was 4-10 with a 5.68 ERA and 1.631 WHIP at Double-A Glens Falls. He turned the corner the next year at Richmond, posting a 2.79 ERA and 1.149 WHIP.
“(The Tigers) changed just about everything about me. I thought I had a good delivery. I searched for two years and tried to figure it out,” said Smoltz. “I got to Atlanta, and (Mazzone) said let me see you throw a baseball. I threw a baseball and he said, ‘That’s a great delivery. That’s how you naturally throw a baseball.’
“From that point on, I was very relaxed and he said, ‘Now we’re just going to work on your pitches.’ That’s all I worked on. I actually was able to progress because I didn’t have to think about 14 different spots I was going to in my delivery. I just had to worry about throwing a pitch.”
Smoltz insists that there is “no way” that he would have been in the majors, let alone a successful major leaguer, for at least three years had he remained with the Tigers. With the Braves, however, he moved quickly, and enjoyed rapid success.
On Aug. 17, 1987, five days after the Smoltz trade, a young left-hander made his major league debut for the Braves. Tom Glavine walked 5 and allowed 10 hits and 6 runs in just 3-2/3 IP that night against the Astros, but it was all uphill from there for the former hockey center and the Bravos.