Smoltz's departure from Atlanta signals end of an era
John Smoltz agreed to a contract with the Boston Red Sox on Thursday
Smoltz had pitched the first 21 seasons of his career with the Atlanta Braves
Smoltz, the 1996 NL Cy Young winner, has 210 wins and 154 saves in his career
ATLANTA -- This town awoke Thursday to the end of an era, one which Marty Noble, the veteran New York baseball writer, captured perfectly one day when he looked at the pitcher's mound in Turner Field, considered the Atlanta Braves' Big Three of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz and...voila! Mound Rushmore.
"The thing was, you'd say, 'Which one's pitching today?'" said Bill McCloskey, the long-time local saloon sage. Whatever the answer, whoever was pitching for the Braves, McCloskey thought what every other Braves fan was thinking: "Good!"
"Them days," McCloskey said Thursday, "are over."
They officially ended for good -- for worse, not better -- when Atlanta learned Thursday that John Smoltz, the eternal flamethrower, a Brave his entire career, for 21 years the guy with the nastiest stuff and least hair on Mound Rushmore, was a Brave no more.
Coming off another surgery, highly displeased with the Braves' contract offer, Smoltz will leave Mound Rushmore for Bunker Hill in Boston. Smoltzie? In Fenway? A Red Sox?
"It was supposed to be me," Glavine, who grew up outside Boston in Billerica, Mass., said, laughing. "That goes to show you how unpredictable sports, and the business of sports, can be. There was a time when you'd have thought the three of us would have retired at the same time."
With the same team. With all three then being enshrined together in Cooperstown five years hence. But Maddux retired last month with 356 wins and four Cy Youngs, having finished his career with a return to the Cubs, then cameos with the Padres and Dodgers. Glavine spent five years in Mets exile in Flushing before returning to Atlanta last season and being limited by injuries. His rehabilitation is progressing nicely, and Glavine hopes to return to the rotation this spring.
But Smoltz? No longer a Brave? Inconceivable. Unconscionable, too, if you read the hundreds of readers' rants on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Braves blog. The tone? Well, here's hoping Braves general manager Frank Wren doesn't have an easily-identifiable vanity license plate on his car.
Long the face of the franchise, Smoltz now felt compelled to look -- and pitch -- elsewhere. That leaves Chipper Jones as the last Brave standing: the only veteran who's played his entire career here. But only Smoltz had been here since the miracle year of '91.
And now he's gone. This, after longtime Braves broadcaster Skip Caray died last summer. Then Skip's 33-year on-air partner, the nonpareil professional Pete Van Wieren, retired in November. And now this.
"The first thing I'll remember? There's no better competitor than John," Van Wieren said. "This guy wanted the ball in a big situation, enjoyed that more than any other of our big-name pitchers. And, how he contributed: Starting pitcher, reliever, and the number of times he bounced back from injury. He's more emblematic of that [1990's] era than anybody."
Smoltz, who has 210 career victories, 154 saves and a 3.26 earned-run average, is the only pitcher in major-league history with more than 200 wins and 150 saves. He is the winningest pitcher in post-season annals, with a 15-4 record. He won the 1996 NL Cy Young Award with 24 regular-season wins, and plays golf well enough to comfortably play 18 or 36 holes with his good buddy Tiger Woods.
What I'll remember most about Smoltz is this: I would not have wanted to face his fastball, especially on the fists. I would never try to diagram any rambling quote of his in any interview; though he was accommodating and talkative to a fault (that diagram would resemble the formula for DNA). And I'd never play ping pong with him.
Smoltz, who was all-state in high school baseball and basketball back in Michigan, is one of the finest athletes I've ever encountered in 35 years of sportswriting. Once, during a predictably interminable rain delay during batting practice in Miami, Smoltz and David Justice passed the time in the clubhouse playing a raucous game of ping pong that was of Olympic caliber, if rated R. OK, X.
The guy never flinched. He always wanted the ball. He worked fiendishly to come back from surgery after surgery after surgery. He recorded his 3,000th career strikeout last season. While he's not expected to resume pitching until May, perhaps June, Smoltz's 3,100th strikeout could come in Fenway Park.
"At least he didn't go to the Yankees," said Clint Lloyd, 27, of Atlanta, seeking solace where he could find it. "That would've been the ultimate spit in the eye. The Yankees, or the Mets."
I also know that if I was ever destitute, or hungry, or needed help of any sort, I'd call Smoltz. He has long been the most visible public face for the Atlanta Community Food Bank, and an activist, too. He's as religious about his faith as he is about his rehab, and helped greatly -- financially and otherwise -- to build a school in the northern suburbs of Atlanta. When he's finished pitching for good, he'll be an insightful and amusing sportscaster, as he's already proven on periodic broadcasts.
Smoltzie? He'll be missed. By everyone. "For me, it's more sadness than disappointment," said Lynn Fowler, 49, an Atlanta attorney and Braves season ticket-holder since 1989. "More reinforcement that those great years are over.
"I just remember the whole post-season in '91," said Fowler, who was there the day Smoltz pitched the Braves into the playoffs and then caught a leaping catcher Greg Olson in his arms. There in Pittsburgh when Smoltz beat the Pirates in Game 7 of the NLCS, and suffering when Smoltz matched Minnesota's Jack Morris scoreless inning for scoreless inning in Game 7 of the World Series before the Twins prevailed 1-0.
"And I remember when he turned it around in '91 with Dr. Llewellyn," Fowler said. With Jack Llewellyn, the sports psychologist Smoltz began seeing after starting the 1991 season 2-12. Initially, all of Atlanta was skeptical. "Sigmund Fraud," one local writer called Llewellyn.
"Smoltz probably caught a lot of grief about that," Fowler said. Llewellyn even wore a red shirt while sitting in the stands behind home plate, to help Smoltz see red and re-focus. "But he had an exceptional mental strength, and it turned his career around. For any athlete to go to a shrink because he needed help, well, I think that's one of the most admirable things I've ever seen."
That's Smoltzie. The likes of which we'll never again see here.