Tigers briefly had one of their own in John Smoltz

By: Bob Elliott

When you scout for the Detroit Tigers it was almost as if general manager Bill Lajoie had a tip line from the Upper Peninsula to Fraser, Mich.

“We had a call about a can’t miss shortstop, his father phoned ...”

“Mind stopping by and taking a look at this outfielder, they tell us he’s a prospect ...”

And one day in the spring of 1984 Lajoie called Bill Schudlich, the Tigers mid-west supervisor,  asking him to have someone check out the grandson of a member of the Tiger Stadium grounds crew.

So, Schudlich called area scout Ken Madeja and asked him to take a look at the high school pitcher.

“I told Bill I was not going on another wild-goose chase, Bill said, go make the grandpa happy,” Madeja was saying this week.

Madeja made the trip to see Lansing’s Waverly High play in Durand, Mich. and that was the first time that Tigers laid eyes on right-hander John Smoltz, grandson of John Frank Smoltz a Tiger Stadium grounds keepers.

And Sunday afternoon Smoltz will be inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. along with Craig Biggio, Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez.

“John was in grade 11 and maybe if you stretched him he was 6 foot,” Madeja said, “but he had a quick arm. The ball jumped out of his hand and he had a mound presence.”

More trips to Lansing followed in 1984, Schudlich and Madeja saw Smoltz pitch summer ball and Tigers scouts including scouting director George Bradley saw everyone of Smoltz’s starts in Michigan  in 1985. Tiger area scouts saw Smoltz when he toured with Team USA playing Cuba and other international powers. 

“I thought he’d be a big leaguer, I’m not going to tell you I knew he was a Hall of Famer,” said Madeja. 

First the Tigers had to draft Smoltz. They chose him in the 22nd round, 574th over-all in North America. 

“We wanted to draft him higher, we knew he was better than that,” Madeja said, but the Tigers were in the minority of their appreciation of Smoltz’s talents. 

Half the scouting community was worried about the way Smoltz hooked his arm -- Rick Sutcliffe was the only major leaguers with a similar arm action -- and the other half avoided him figuring he’d be a difficult sign and would eventually stay at home to attend Michigan State University.  

“Old time scouts were worried he wouldn’t throw enough strikes,” the scout recalled. “We thought pro ball was his first love. When he was 15 he was pitching in Johnstown, Penn. against 19 year-olds. He’d pitch any time for any team he could join. He had a burning desire to test himself against older people.”

The Tigers gave Smoltz a $70,000 US signing bonus. That same draft, the Boston Red Sox chose right-hander Danny Gabriele from Walled Lake, Mich. in the first round, 21st over-all. 

Madeja said Mick McCabe from the Detroit Free Press called asking “why do you guys always pick the wrong guy, why let Boston come in and take a first rounder?”  

Madeja answered: “The kid we took in the 22nd is better,” Madeja said. 

McCabe called the scout and the two joked about the conversation after Smoltz was elected. 

After 35 starts in the Tigers minor league system -- 14 at class-A Lakeland and 21 at double-A Glens Falls -- Smoltz was gone ... traded to the Atlanta Braves for right-hander Doyle Alexander.

Madeja wasn’t happy about the trade and Blue Jays fans felt worse, especially when Alexander made 11 starts for the Tigers, went 9-0 and allowed four earned runs in 17 2/3 innings in his final two starts both against the Jays as part of the Mo Town Melt Down.    

“I was happy we won the division, but we had other guys we could have moved for Alexander,” said Madeja, who left the Tigers after the 1987 season and was hired by Seattle Mariners’ scouting director Roger Jongewaard and he remains with the M’s.

Moving Smoltz was partially the reason, but Madeja “didn’t like going into homes of high schoolers and telling parents that the Tigers would look after their sons when we didn’t have full-time pitching instructors or hitting coaches on each club,” In those days roving minor-league instructors were handled the duties.  

This May, scouts Madeja and Schudlich were invited to a party of 150 hosted by Smoltz in Lansing for former teammates and friends unable to make the trip to Cooperstown. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo was there. Smoltz spoke for half an hour and thanked everyone by name. 

Besides Smoltz, Madeja signed major leaguers Derek Lowe, Matt Mantei, J.J. Putz, Chris Hoiles, Matt Thornton, Denny Stark, Aaron Scheffer, Justin Thomas, Andy Van Hekken. Brett Hinchcliffe, Ryan Feiraband, Clint Nageotte, Ron Rightnowar, Scott Aldred and Canadian Chris Mears.

“I rooted for Atlanta every post season, same with any of the guys I signed,” said the man who sent the players on their way.

Madeja said he only had a feeling for three players, who had something different: his teammate Frank Tanana in 1970 with the Detroit Firemen in Adray League, Lowe (“he threw 10 pitches at a camp in Dearborn and I sent him home hoping no one else noticed him”) and Smoltz. 

And now the grandson of a Tiger Stadium grounds keeper and the son of an accordion player will be inducted along with the likes of Al Kaline and Ty Cobb ... but as an Atlanta Brave. 

Bob ElliottComment