2006 NEWS

2006 News > 4/30/06


John Shea, San Francisco Chronicle
Original Article HERE.

The Big Three, well before the abbreviated version evaporated in Oakland, pitched together for 10 years in Atlanta. It was a decade of pitching supremacy that may never be repeated under the current economic system.

From 1993, the year Greg Maddux joined Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, until 2002, Glavine's final year with the Braves, these teammates turned Fulton County Stadium and Turner Field into the pitching hub of big-league baseball.

In those 10 years, they got picked to 15 All-Star Games and won five Cy Young Awards (three for Maddux, one each for Glavine and Smoltz) and 453 games, and that includes the final three seasons in which Smoltz won just six games because of an elbow injury that led to his transformation into a closer.

"It was a special time for us. It was a blast," said Glavine, the only pitcher of the three who was signed and developed by the Braves. "It may not happen again, unless an organization gets lucky and somehow ties up their guys before free agency. But it's hard to find three pitchers in the same organization to have success like that together. Those guys in Oakland were as close as it got. Unfortunately for them, they weren't able to stay together."

Four years after the start of their breakup, the ex-rotation mates are still mad men on the mound, or haven't you noticed Maddux's 1.35 ERA over his first five starts with the Cubs, all victories? Or Glavine's 1.38 ERA in his first three starts with the Mets, before he was roughed up by the Giants last week? Or Smoltz's four-hit shutout of the Padres on April 15?

"We've all been pretty fortunate, especially now," Glavine said. "It seems to me those two guys feel pretty good physically, and I do, too. It could come down to how long we want to play rather than getting forced out (by an injury)."

Maddux, three weeks younger than Glavine, turned 40 on April 14. Smoltz turns 39 in May. Although they won just one World Series title together, in 1995, they were one-of-a-kind when it came to long-term regular-season trios.

In Los Angeles in the '60s, Sandy Koufax had his six Hall of Fame seasons with Don Drysdale at his side, but Claude Osteen was around for just two of those years, Don Sutton for one. Later, in Baltimore, Jim Palmer, Dave McNally and Mike Cuellar were a unit for six years.

More recently in Oakland, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito had a five-year relationship, which ended when Hudson and Mulder were moved during a three-day trading frenzy in December 2004. Zito remains, but he's not expected to last until next season.

"It was a little tougher to keep it together financially in a market like Oakland, and the A's are as creative as anybody," Glavine said. "With the Braves, we were a big-market team. When that changed, it meant the end for me and the end for Greg. Nowadays, it's tougher to keep something like that together."

The Braves' payroll is still relatively high at $90.2 million, ranking ninth in the majors. For much of the Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz era, a big-market team meant having a $50 million or $60 million payroll, but now it's double or triple that.

Despite their huge pockets, the Yankees and Red Sox haven't had three co-aces complement each other for an extended length. Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina? Three years. Pedro Martinez was in Boston seven years, but he never had two long-term sidekicks of note.

The Atlanta pitchers' simultaneous success seems more extraordinary now, and it adds to the lore of pitching coach Leo Mazzone, who left in the offseason after 15 years with Atlanta and joined the Orioles, and general manager John Schuerholz, who signed Maddux before the '93 season and also signed Glavine and Smoltz to long-term contracts. Smoltz re-signed before the '97 season for four years, and Maddux and Glavine followed with deals through 2002.

When owner Ted Turner was phased out by AOL-Time Warner, Schuerholz's cash flow took a hit. The last man remaining, Smoltz, is signed through the year with a club option for 2007.

They could meet again at the Hall of Fame. Maddux's enshrinement seems a slam dunk, based on his 323 wins. Glavine is at 277 and said, "My master plan is for 300 wins in the next two years and take it from there. It would be special, considering what we did on the field and playing all that golf off the field, for us to all be in the Hall of Fame at some point."

Smoltz, whose chances for Cooperstown don't appear as good as Maddux's and Glavine's, could have 250-plus wins if not for his career-altering elbow injury. As it is, he's the only pitcher other than Dennis Eckersley in the 150-150 club. He has 177 wins and 154 saves.

In the 10 years the three pitchers were Atlanta teammates, the Braves ranked first or second in league ERA every year. Now they're 11th.