SHANKS: When you got to the Braves, was it different from the Phillies?
SMITH: Well I played A ball with the Phillies and played well that year in Clearwater. It was a little different. I ended up having some arm problems my first year. I didn’t think it was major but I believe the biggest think to me was that I needed to start throwing a breaking ball. I never really threw a breaking ball. It was more or less just a fastball. I just kind of let it go. I started developing a little bit of a slider. They were on the fastball more. I actually didn’t throw a changeup until my first game in the big leagues. I didn’t know how. I threw fastballs and I’m sure I threw some breaking balls but in AA I realized these guys could hit a little bit better. Then the coaches started developing a better breaking ball with a pretty good slider. When I got called up Bruce Dal Canton our pitching coach asked, “How do you throw a changeup?” I said, “I don’t have a changeup.” So he taught me the circle change in a week, and that’s pretty much what I threw my first game against the Padres. When you’re 21 or 22 you don’t really think about it. In Atlanta there was only 2400 people in the stands. To me, those guys could hit a lot better. You needed to mix it up with the AA hitters more so than the A ballers.
SHANKS: Who all helped you with your pitching?
SMITH: Well Leo was there. With the Greenville Braves Bill Slack helped out a lot. Bruce Dal Canton helped out a lot. Jim Beauchamp.
SHANKS: Was it easy to think you were the real deal when you were a minor league prospect?
SMITH: I think it’s just different personalities. Yea. Whether I was slacking because I was a number one pick, that mentality that’s just an ego thing, and then somebody had to kick me in the pants and say, “Hey this isn’t going to be a free ride. You’ve got to earn it. So pull your head out of your butt and let’s go.” I remember Beach the most. He drilled that into me. But great pitching coaches, all three of those guys. Leo, Bill Slack, and Dal Canton worked with you and taught you everything that they knew.
SHANKS: What was Leo like back then?
SMITH: Same thing. Same thing. I think he’s a little bit more confident now. Obviously he’s a little more experienced and he’s proven what he can do. In the minors he was the exact same thing. He was very good with mechanics and finding things right away. He’d look at you and in one pitch he’d tell you, “Get your arm up. Bad delivery. Keep your weight back. Good rotation.” Whatever. He was always right on it. He was always that way.
SHANKS: It had to be a good feeling knowing that pitching was becoming a priority there?
SMITH: It was because we had a really good team in Greenville. I knew the team was struggling but I didn’t think they’d actually throw us into the fire as quickly as they did. Tommy (Glavine) I believe had a better understanding of it. I could see he was just ready to get up there. With me, it was kind of like, “Oh we don’t need AAA go up there and take the ball and learn how to pitch.” Both of us were young. I think Blauser went up first. Then everybody just started coming up. I knew that we would have a better team. We struggled a couple of years but everybody got their feet wet.
SHANKS: And you had to trust the front office that they were going to be patient too, right?
SMITH: Definitely. Definitely. There were a couple of years when it was tough, but it was a good group of guys and we were all developing. We knew what we did in Greenville. We knew we had a solid team. We just saw different guys doing different things. We knew that if we all stuck together we were going to put together some pretty good years.
SHANKS: You guys kept each other up?
SMITH: Definitely. By that time we had already played with each other for three of four years so we knew each other well. We hung out during the offseason and played golf with everybody. We didn’t go our own way. I think we all stayed in Atlanta. I think all of us live in Atlanta now. Tommy and I had an apartment here. We stayed with Blauser one offseason. Lemke was here and Ronnie Gant bought a house down here. Kent Mercker was here. Everybody was there. Avery was starting to come up through the ranks. It was like a title wave. That’s the impression. We knew, “If we all get this going, if we all get on the same page, we could play pretty good ball.” But it was a slower process then. But then one day we woke up and it was like, “Wow we’ve got a pretty great team.” It was a little at a time.
SHANKS: That had to be exciting to know that one day it was going to break and you would start winning.
SMITH: I think it was a culmination of what Bobby had developed and what Bobby had started with signing some of the guys that he did and working with us through the ranks and then when John came over he brought in some veterans like Sid and Terry and even Rafael. I think that’s why it clicked in 91. Everybody just came together. We had good leadership. We had been playing with each other for a few years. I had been there since 86. Tommy was there in 86. So now it’s 91 and we’ve been playing with each other for five years. Now that core was pretty much all together. A couple of guys came up later like Smoltzie. But the same thing, he comes out in Shea Stadium and shuts them down in front of 52,000 people in September. We were like, “Wow. This kid’s got some great stuff.” It was little things like that. People succeeded and everybody fed off of that.
SHANKS: You came up right after him right?
SMITH: Yea but he actually went to AAA in 87. I think he got called up in August. We always watched Tommy and kept track of each other. I had surgery in 86 so I was trying to come back from labrum surgery. I struggled the first half and then Beach was talking with me. Maybe I was feeling kind of down on myself because I was coming off surgery, but then everything just kind of clicked. We watched Tommy and he earned that right to get up there. He was the perfect one, yea.
SHANKS: That Greenville team was very good wasn’t it?
SMITH: I think that’s what they wanted. I think that was in their plan. I think you have to give a lot of credit to Bobby and Stan, the brass of the Braves. They saw that. “We’re 22 games out, so let’s bring Glavine up, let’s let him take his knocks now.” You come up and you get your tail kicked for a while then you start saying, “I can compete with these guys.” Then you kind of find it.
SHANKS: Now considering what’s taken place in the last 14 years, is it special to know that you were apart of the core group that started all of this?
SMITH: Then Avery and Mercker came in. When I got traded in 93 Mercker became the 5th starter. Smoltzie, Glavine, and Avery were pretty solid. Charlie Leibrandt was there as well and he brought in some veteran leadership. He had been there pitching great for the Royals. But those top three were the core. I had a good year in 92, but I battled arm problems. Mercker has always been better out of the pen, but he had some pretty decent years. But those three were just pretty consistent.
SHANKS: Were your arm problems a case of someone who just threw hard?
SMITH: Honestly I think some people are born with a strong shoulder joint and a strong body figure. My arm was just susceptible to injury. I had four arm surgeries. The same thing with Avery, when I saw him in Baltimore when he was with the Red Sox I almost started crying because he was throwing from his hip. You just lose it. There’s just so much strain on your shoulder. That’s what’s amazing when you look at Tommy and Maddux. These guys have battled through it and never had surgery. I think it’s just a God-given ability. Most guys just blow their arms out. There’s a lot of stuff going on.
SHANKS: I know in 91 you were up and down between Richmond and Atlanta.
SMITH: It was hard to be away from it. That was the group. That was our crew. That was our Greenville team. So to be hurt and then to be trying to come back, not feeling right, and being back down in Richmond was hard. It was hard mentally. But it was also motivation to get back. I came back up in 91, but it still hurt. After the surgery in 90, it didn’t click for me until 92.
SHANKS: Was there an appreciation after you guys had won that you had suffered through those years in the late 80’s.
SMITH: I think the goal that was set was 95. I think they reached it in 95. Even though I wasn’t part of the club then, it was fun to see so those guys win. You still wish you were on the club. I was in Cincinnati at the time. You know those guys were just tearing it up. To a degree you felt you were a very small part of that because you came up with those guys. But the majority of those guys, Glavine, Smoltz, Lemmer, and Blauser, it was neat for those guys to reach that goal. In hindsight, what Stan and Bobby and Schuerholz thought would happen did happen in 95.
SHANKS: When Bobby took over as manager in 1990, what did that do?
SMITH: I think it didn’t do much in 1990, but in 91 it was like it was a fresh start. I think 90 we just kind of finished out the year. But it was a culmination of Bobby, who everybody knew and liked and respected, Leo, who most of us worked with and liked. He’s out there but he’s in your face, and he’s likeable. He’s just like a little Italian mentor. But I think John brought in all those other people, Bream and Terry and in 91 we were like, “Ok cool, let’s go. This is going to be a fun year.” We had some good people in here. I think everything came together at the right time. It’s nothing against people in the past like Russ Nixon. Bruce Dal Canton was a good pitching coach. You almost feel bad for them. But it all came together in spring training of 1991. New manager, new pitching coach, we had been together for a few years, and then we brought in some new people. Nice people. Good guys. You didn’t really have any cancers on the team, egomaniacs, or someone doing his own thing. Everybody was on the same pitch. We just started going.
SHANKS: Probably whether it was Russ Nixon or Chuck Tanner, there evidently needed someone in there as the skipper to take you to the next level.
SMITH: I think so. I think to a small degree to see Bobby come out of the front office and say, “I want to be on the field with these guys.” I think that turned it up a little. We were thinking, “Wow this guy has enough confidence in us to leave his cushy job up in the box to come into the dugout with us.” I think a lot of people respected that. I remember distinctly him saying, “I don’t really think I want to manage. I did that in Toronto.” And then we hear that Bobby’s going to manage. Then he took over and I think everybody was excited about that.
SHANKS: How amazing is what you guys started has turned into a dynasty? It’s still going on. Smoltz is the last piece.
SMITH: Except for all the coaches. I think that’s a big thing. They know what they went through. It all starts with Bobby. He’s the best manager I ever played for. Hands down. He doesn’t over manage. He’s truly the fairest person you’ll ever see, and he’s always got your back. Always. He will never go to the paper. If he’s got an issue, he’ll always come to you. I had a manager who did that. They have an issue with you and they’ll go to the paper and start some controversy instead of throwing you into the office and talking to you. He will always back his players. You’ll never hear him doggin’ his players.
SHANKS: We’ve had a 50% turnover this year. To be able to keep that up is remarkable.
SMITH: I think Bobby, John, Leo and the coaching staff is the common thread. They get the most out of every player. When players come to the Braves right now, they know they’re going to be in for a winning season. If you’re not up to par, you better get yourself up to par. They know what it takes to win. They’ve been doing it for fourteen years. It’s kind of nice to say we started it, but almost everyone else has moved on. But I think the winning attitude has remained in Atlanta.
SHANKS: Was the makeup of your group important in establishing that winning attitude and was the makeup helped by what you went through in the late 80’s?
SMITH: I think it was. I think it was. In the minors for some strange reason, and it may be true in other minor league systems, there were days off when we would all be together. I’d see these guys for 162 days and when we had a day off, where many people would be with their families, we were so young that there were no days off.
SHANKS: Now you were on other teams, so was it like that elsewhere?
SMITH: No. On days off guys would scatter. We’d go our own ways. But with us, we all hung out together.
SHANKS: Do you think in 10 years there will be even more of an appreciation for what went on?
SMITH: Sure. These guys go from being these 18-year-old kids to being Hall of Fame pitchers. Tommy’s one and John’s close. Mercker’s had a solid career. Avery was a great pitcher. I had some good years and had fun. I don’t have any regrets. I wish my arm wasn’t as sore as it was. I would have loved to have stayed healthy to see what I could have done, but I have no regrets at all. Some pretty good ballplayers came out of that bunch.
SHANKS: Do you think it’s easier now to be a Braves pitching prospect?
SMITH: I think we had it easier. Honestly. With the likes of Tommy, John, and Steve they set the bar where if you don’t fall into that category, they may overlook you. So it’s the same thing. You better get yourself together. I think that’s why they have a solid minor league system. What happens in the big leagues filters down to the minor leagues. They get their players to be in that top form. I think they look at it like, “I’m going to have to get myself together if I’m going to fit into that clubhouse.
SHANKS: But that 91 group will always be special.
SMITH: I think to a degree sure. It was the first time in a long time we had won. But 91 was there something different. It was a young group. We were like 10 games back and came back. The crowd got into it doing the tomahawk chop. Again, all the stars were just lined up properly. It just clicked and it grabbed everybody’s attention. If they can win this year, I don’t think the players who were in my group would think we’d have anything to do with it. You have to give all the credit to the management, Bobby, and Leo. You’ve got Leo turning guys who have struggled into 15-game winners. It’s not just a fluke. Leo knows what he’s doing.
Scout’s Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team is available at Barnes & Noble and other local bookstores. Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.