The reason fans take such pride in their team having a hometown hero is rooted in their childhood memories.

Ask any baseball fan what their childhood dream was growing up, and their answer will be that they wanted to be the star player for their favorite team.

Thus, when a particular team has a player on their roster that grew up rooting for them, the fans embrace him so warmly because, in a sense, they’re allowed to live their childhood dream through him.

This relationship is the reason why Minnesota Twins fans may cheer a little harder for Joe Mauer or why Atlanta Braves fans did the same for Jeff Francoeur at one point.

Sometimes, the presence of these players alone is enough to light a spark that ultimately ends with the team contending for a playoff spot. However, some of these hometown heroes end up leaving home, sometimes unwillingly.

It was an instance of this in the 1980s that put one team on the path to greatness and another on the road to perennial mediocrity.

The 1985 baseball amateur draft was one that featured a crop of sure-fire future Hall of Famers. Players selected included outfielder Barry Bonds and pitcher Randy Johnson, among other future stars.

Mixed in with these young athletes was a young pitcher from Waverly High School in Lansing, Michigan—just a stone’s throw away from Detroit, where his favorite team, the reigning World Series champion Tigers, played.

He also played basketball at school, and despite having a wide variety of pitches that most high school athletes had difficulty hitting (let alone seeing), a basketball scholarship being offered by Michigan State University kept him from going in the higher rounds.

His name was John Smoltz, and his childhood dream of playing for his beloved Tigers appeared to have finally come true.

Twenty years later, Smoltz would have a myriad of accomplishments on his baseball resumé—all achieved without throwing one pitch as a member of the Detroit Tigers.

In the summer of 1987, while Smoltz pitched in the minor leagues, the Tigers were in a three-way race for first place in their division. The key to the team making the postseason was effective pitching, so the front office decided to trade for an experienced arm rather than rush Smoltz by calling him up. Thus, on August 12, the Tigers traded Smoltz to the Atlanta Braves for 36-year-old Doyle Alexander.

At first, the trade appeared to be a good move as Alexander went undefeated in all his starts for Detroit, helping the team clinch the division title in the last few days of the season. Yet the Tigers were defeated in the playoffs by the Minnesota Twins and spent the next 20 years as seemingly constant cellar-dwellers, even losing 119 games in 2003 before finally returning to the postseason in 2006.

On the other side of the deal, the acquisition of Smoltz has proven to be one of the best trades in Atlanta Braves history. Twenty years after the trade, Smoltz has established himself as one of the most versatile pitchers in baseball.

After undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2000 after 12 years as a starting pitcher, he returned to the team a year later and spent four seasons as the Braves’ closer before returning to the rotation again in 2005. Along with over 200 wins, he has accumulated 154 saves. He has been to the postseason 14 times, reaching the World Series five times, including helping his team win a championship in 1995.

While the trading of Smoltz in 1987 may have seemed like a good idea at the time to the Detroit Tigers front office, it can still be considered one of the worst trades in baseball history.

Rather than have confidence in the roster that had kept the team in the playoff race all that season, greed got the better of the team executives and made them foolishly trade the potential future “face” of the franchise for an aging veteran who was way past his prime.

It is sad to think that they gave up a player who could have won them multiple championships in exchange for a player they hoped could bring them a championship just a bit quicker.

Experts will say that the key to a successful team is the perfect combination of youth and experience, without sacrificing one to get the other. I guess that the 1987 Detroit Tigers forgot to read that part of the memo when they were going over their five-year plan, which I’m almost positive didn’t include consecutive last-place finishes.

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