Smoltz 2.0: No longer a Brave, still undaunted
Longtime Atlantan returns to game Thursday -- with Boston
WASHINGTON -- He is starting up all over again, kicking off another chapter in what has been a memorable two decades of dominance. When John Smoltz throws his first official pitch for the Red Sox on Thursday night against the Washington Nationals, getting another chance to add to his already legendary career, he'll still be No. 29 but without the familiar "A" on his cap.
Coming off surgery to repair his right shoulder on June 10, 2008, Smoltz's first start for anyone other than the Atlanta Braves will come on 387 days of rest and hundreds of miles from his former home. But Smoltz has no visions of a touchy-feely return to baseball in which he doffs his cap a few times and rides off into the proverbial sunset.
Once Smoltz underwent that surgery to repair his labrum, he put all of his energy -- physically and mentally -- into getting back to being the type of pitcher his fans and teammates have been accustomed to.
Smoltz didn't come back to be a token rotation-filler type of starter. He is back to again thrive, and to get a chance to pitch in October again.
"It will be a success," said Smoltz. "I came back with this mind-set. It ain't about stories, it ain't about being able to say I can do it again. This is about pitching and getting hitters out. The end result is going to be that. And in three, four, five starts from now, I think you'll see why I feel the way I do."
To those In Atlanta, there are sure to be bittersweet emotions when Smoltz steps on that mound for the Red Sox on Thursday night. It will be awkward for baseball followers as well, many of whom watched Smoltz pitch in 13 postseasons for the Braves.
Smoltz was an institution in Atlanta, both on the mound and in the community. He still has a home there. And it is where he posted a 210-147 record, a 3.26 ERA, 154 saves and 3,011 strikeouts in a tenure that started back in 1988.
But his career has shifted to baseball-rabid Boston, and by now, Smoltz has more than come to terms with that.
"That's in the past now. There's no sense even dwelling on that," Smoltz said. "I made it pretty well known back then what I wanted to do and it didn't work out. That part will be a little bit different, but it won't be weird to be in a uniform and throwing a baseball, I can promise you that. When I'm on the mound, I'm going to give everything that I absolutely have."
The determination and confidence fits the persona of one of the fiercest competitors of this or any generation.
"He's probably the most competitive player that I've ever played with. Ever. High school, college, anywhere," said Red Sox right fielder J.D. Drew, a member of the 2004 Atlanta Braves. "Just everything he does, he competes at it and he loves it. I think that's exactly what [Red Sox fans] will see. He lives it daily. He wants to be successful every time out and that's what has made him successful for so many years."
Despite his birth certificate that shows his 42 years of age, Smoltz is no graybeard. Talk to him about pitching, and he speaks with the enthusiasm of a 22-year-old. The ball still comes out of his right arm -- surgeries and all -- in the low 90s and with pinpoint location.
|"I enjoy what I'm doing. It takes a lot of hard work and dedication to get back to this point, and if I were doing it to prove one human being or 10 human beings wrong, I'd be foolish. I'm doing it because I love it. When I came back from the surgery, I knew I could pitch again. I'm convinced whatever I put my mind to, I will be able to do, whether it's to build a school, playing senior tour golf or just whatever God has me doing five years from now."|
|-- John Smoltz|
And even recently, Smoltz has been an upper-echelon starter. He produced 50 quality starts over the 2006 and '07 seasons, the most in the Majors over that span.
So why bother coming back with so many laurels to rest on? Why go through such a grueling rehab, and why change uniforms and cities for the first time, when so much has already been accomplished?
Smoltz knows that a lot of people have wondered that very thing, and to be truthful, it perplexes him a bit. Not only does Smoltz want to pitch the rest of 2009, but he has visions of pitching next year as well, be it for the Red Sox or someone else.
"Certainly, coming back from surgery, as I've said many times, this is not a half-year job," Smoltz said. "This is not something I wanted to do just for a half a year. I plan on pitching past this year. I don't get caught up in it any more as far as the future and what everyone thinks as far as what I should have done or could have done.
"I enjoy what I'm doing. It takes a lot of hard work and dedication to get back to this point, and if I were doing it to prove one human being or 10 human beings wrong, I'd be foolish. I'm doing it because I love it. When I came back from the surgery, I knew I could pitch again. I'm convinced whatever I put my mind to, I will be able to do, whether it's to build a school, playing senior tour golf or just whatever God has me doing five years from now."
While it seemed for so long that Smoltz would be the rare player in the mold of a Tony Gwynn or Cal Ripken Jr. who would spend his whole career as an iconic figure with one team, things changed. The Braves didn't feel it was a prudent business move to come close to matching the guaranteed $5.5 million pact that the righty wound up taking from the Red Sox.
There was disappointment in Atlanta to see Smoltz go, but they still talk about him in revered fashion there.
"Smoltzie is one of the most competitive people I've ever been around," said Braves manager Bobby Cox. "If he says he's going to do something, he's going to do it. The guy pitched through a lot of pain here and always managed to pitch well."
Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, a potential Hall of Famer himself, has no doubts about what Smoltz can offer to the Red Sox.
"With Smoltz coming back now, it's like the Red Sox have made a big trade or signed a blockbuster free agent in the middle of the season," said Jones.
While the Red Sox, particularly those who haven't been around Smoltz for any length of time, are about to find out what they are getting, the Braves know all too well.
"The guy is a definite Hall of Famer," said Braves catcher Brian McCann. "He's one of the best pitchers ever. It was just an honor to be able to catch him for a few years. Everybody in this clubhouse loved that guy."
Again, though, the Red Sox did not sign Smoltz for what he was. They got him for what they believe he can still be.
"He's spent a lot of time getting ready to come back and help us, and he's been unbelievably cooperative," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "He's been tremendous. He wants to help us win and he hasn't gotten caught up in just coming back to make an appearance for the Red Sox. He understands the big picture, which we're appreciative of. I think, as an organization, we'll be rewarded for that, because I think he's going to pitch well."
Smoltz is confident that just the second stop he has made in his baseball career will be the right one.
"Once the scenario played out and they came and saw me pitch, it was not going to be any other team if it didn't work out with Atlanta," Smoltz said. "Their philosophy and everything that they had for me made all the sense in the world. We weren't going to progress and look at anything else if it didn't work out [with the Braves], and it didn't, so this is the best-case scenario for me."
During the height of Smoltz's dominance, he was part of one of the best starting pitching trios of all-time, along with Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. Maddux retired in December, and Glavine, who was released by the Braves earlier this month, has said he won't pitch this year. So that leaves Smoltz as the current survivor of that once-gaudy group. And yes, his old rotation mates are still following him.
|"He's probably the most competitive player that I've ever played with. Ever. High school, college, anywhere. Just everything he does, he competes at it and he loves it."|
|-- J.D. Drew|
Smoltz's entire body of work is fascinating, because it hasn't been replicated to such an extended degree in two different roles. Dennis Eckersley comes the closest, but he wasn't Hall of Fame caliber (149-130, 3.71 ERA) as a starter. The Eck was a first-ballot Hall of Famer because of his dominance (390 saves) as a closer.
As a starter, Smoltz is 206-141 with a 3.33 ERA and 2,731 strikeouts. During his four years in the bullpen (2001-04), Smoltz was about as overpowering (2.41 ERA, .215 opponents batting average) as any closer.
"His stuff has been unbelievable year in and year out," said Rangers right-hander Kevin Millwood, a former teammate of Smoltz's. "But to go along with it, he's smart and he can do a lot of different things, and do them well. You don't find too many pitchers who can be a dominant closer and a dominant starter."
Aside from the caliber of his stuff, Smoltz has always been known for his feel for pitching. It played a big role in his comeback from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery in 2001, and it should serve him well again as he rebounds from his first shoulder surgery.
"He's reinvented himself so many times, he has that ability, and it's probably somewhat of a rare ability, but he's got that feel where he can change arm angles -- he's got to be able to see what works, and he makes it work," Francona said.
Of course, the thing that best complements Smoltz's fire is his athleticism.
"He can play any sport," said Dodgers shortstop Rafael Furcal, who broke in with the Braves. "He golfs with Tiger Woods in Spring Training. He's amazing. The guy never gets mad. I loved playing behind him. He's the kind of guy you want in your clubhouse."
"He's a competitor," said another of Smoltz's former teammates, Andruw Jones of the Texas Rangers. "He's a good athlete and he knows how to win. He's always been a winner. That's what makes him John Smoltz."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.