July 21, 2011

Interview with John Smoltz on baseball, Mariano Rivera [Audio]

I had the opportunity yesterday at work to interview John Smoltz over the phone. We talked about the division races, awards, Red Sox and Yankees.

Smoltz is very well-spoken, as he has broadcast games for TBS and MLB Network ever since leaving baseball after 2009 (he hasn’t officially retired).

Here’s the audio:

I asked him about Mariano Rivera (begins at 6:12) when he got a chance to see him in the 1996 World Series, and if he knew right then that Rivera was the real deal. Surprisingly, he said, “no doubt,” he’d be special. Rivera was terrific in 1996, don’t get me wrong, but it’s hard to foresee a Hall of Fame type career for a reliever (there are so few).

For the full interview transcription, head over to Boston.com or read more below.

Lenny: We're a little past the halfway point now, but no team is running away with its division. What race is the most intriguing to you? 

Smoltz: The most intriguing would certainly be what's happening in the NL Central, but when it comes down to Boston and New York every year that's always what most people want to see or like to see and the animosity that exists between the two of them. It certainly looks like it's going to go down to the wire. Both teams have jockied, both teams have had injuries -- significant injuries -- both teams have stayed right where they're at for the most part. It's going to be a battle.

L: As you mentioned, is there any bigger surprise team in baseball than the first-place Pirates right now?

S: No. They've won the last two games with just dominant pitching. Their closer [Joel] Hanrahan is having an unbelievable year. Kudos to what's going on there because this time a year they are about ready to ship players other places, now they may actually be in the market looking for players.

L: All right, awards time. Who are your AL/NL Cy Youngs and MVPs?

S: That AL Cy Young is going to go absolutely down to the last start because you've got three horses right now in the race: CC [Sabathia], [Jered] Weaver and [Justin] Verlander. I never got caught up in one start, so that's why I'm still going to give Verlander the edge, but if CC continues at the rate he's continuing he's going to win it. Verlander had one bad start in his last nine or 10 games.

As far as MVP, at this current rate [Adrian] Gonzalez. For National League Cy Young, it's going to be interesting to see how the team of  — whatever team, the Braves or Phillies, that wins the division is going to have the Cy Young.

As far as MVP, that one's more wide open. [Jose] Reyes has got a chance on a team that may not going anywhere. He might get traded; he might end up being the losers MVP because he gets traded. You got Prince Fielder in the last year of his contract, maybe trying to put his team on his back to win the MVP. I think the National League is wide open; there isn't an obvious choice.

L: The Red Sox have a small lead over the Yankees, but with the trade deadline looming many expect those two to make some upgrades. What is a bigger need for the Red Sox: pitching or a right fielder?

S: Well, you know what's interesting is I never would have said pitching, but they seem to find ways to sustain injuries every year and can overcome some of them, but not when you get a rash like they've got, a 1-2-3-4-5 situation. Every starter has been hurt.

L: [Josh] Beckett has been fairly healthy.

S: Yeah, but he missed a start or two and tweaked his knee. You're right, he hasn't gone on the DL. As far as needs, I think they are the most balanced team. If they all of a sudden made a rule that nobody could trade Boston would be in the best position. There's no team without a weakness, but I think it's kind of hard to even imagine that Boston could upgrade, depending on what they'd be willing to give up, in a scenario that if they get healthy they're as good as anyone.

L: You spent a little time in a Red Sox uniform at the very end of your career. When you were on the mound in Fenway, how would you compare it to the experience in Atlanta?

S: Well there's really no comparison. Fenway is unique in itself, the whole idea of pitching in Fenway is unlike any other ballpark, period. The atmosphere as well as the tradition of the guys that played there and the fans, games being sold out all the time, there really isn't a comparison I can make with Atlanta that I can make. Atlanta is a bigger ballpark, nicer, bigger room for the pitcher to give up mistakes, certainly not sold out all the time. Two totally different kind of venues.

L: Along with working for Boston.com, I also run a Yankees blog and my boss is allowing me to ask one Yankees-related question if you don't mind.

S: Sure.

L: You faced the Yankees in the World Series in 1996 and 1999 -- hard-luck loser once in each series, but pitched a gem in Game 1 of '96 against Andy Pettitte. Which series was more memorable to you? And, in 1996 did you see anything in Mariano Rivera that would indicate that he would go on to have a Hall of Fame type career?

S: He already has.

L: In '96, though, when you were watching him.

S: What's amazing in '96, he wasn't the closer obviously. John Wetteland was. When Mariano Rivera came out of the game, Which is the greatest compliment you can give him, you felt like you had a chance against Wetteland, and Wetteland was tough in his own right. So, yes, I think everybody who saw Mariano pitch knew he would be the type of pitcher he is today. That's just something you don't see, a guy who can repeat a pitch over and over and over again. That was one of those you could say, no doubt.

Check out my other interviews with Jim Bouton and Bernie Williams.

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