Smoltz holds no ill will toward Braves
Despite new gig with Red Sox, home for veteran will always be Atlanta
ATLANTA -- While neither party wanted it to end this way, some will say that it was in the best interests of both the Braves and John Smoltz to temporarily part ways.
Looking to reconstruct their starting staff with the hope of avoiding the rash of injuries that depleted their rotation this past season, the Braves focused their attention on acquiring pitchers who didn't possess the uncertain element that Smoltz's surgically repaired right shoulder brings.
Along the way, they repeatedly stated that they wanted to re-sign Smoltz, if he proved that he could still pitch.
In the process of utilizing this conservative approach, they led Smoltz to feel like he was wanted more elsewhere.
Consequently, Smoltz provided a shocking revelation last week, when he decided to end his 22-year association with the Braves to begin another chapter of his career with the Red Sox.
"Every single minute that I spent in [Atlanta] and the three times that I was previously a free agent, I made it a priority to be here and to do whatever it took to retire an Atlanta Brave," Smoltz said during a news conference on Wednesday.
"It just obviously became a little more difficult to do that. Some people will understand that and some people won't. I don't harbor any ill feelings or bitterness. I want the Braves to go to the World Series, and certainly now I want them to play against the Boston Red Sox. We'll let fate take care of the rest after that."
Fate combined with Father Time seldom allows Hall of Famers the opportunity to play their entire careers with one organization. On their marches toward Cooperstown, Hank Aaron, Phil Niekro and Eddie Mathews were forced to spend some time with a team not called the Braves.
Now as Smoltz continues his march that many feel is destined to conclude in Cooperstown, he finds himself with the opportunity to experience life in Beantown as a temporary inhabitant of Red Sox Nation.
While the jersey might read "Red Sox," Smoltz understands and appreciates the reality that he'll forever be an Atlanta Brave. The events of the past few weeks and months have done nothing to alter this reality.
"I've loved every second, every minute [of playing for the Braves]," Smoltz said. "I'm not dying. I'm not leaving. I'm just playing for a different team. I'm going to live [in Atlanta] for the rest of my life. ... My desire to serve this community and my desire to be a part of the Atlanta Braves legacy will never change."
Things truly began to change in June, when Smoltz underwent a surgical procedure to repair a right shoulder that had never been healthy since he captured the National League Cy Young Award in 1996.
Given the severity of the damage Dr. James Andrews found during this procedure, the Braves and Smoltz both understood that he might never pitch again.
This was a signal for Smoltz to once again attempt to prove his doubters wrong. As for the Braves, this was a warning that prevented them from giving a soon-to-be 42-year-old pitcher the benefit of the doubt that the veteran and some of his teammates -- namely Chipper Jones -- felt he had earned.
Smoltz's rehab progressed much quicker than expected, and on Dec. 5, with Braves manager Bobby Cox and pitching coach Roger McDowell in attendance, he completed his first post-surgery mound session in impressive fashion.
|"I'm not dying. I'm not leaving. I'm just playing for a different team."|
|-- John Smoltz|
Along with providing a guaranteed $5.5 million, the Red Sox presented an incentive package that was aimed toward Smoltz remaining sidelined until June. To maximize the $5.5 million worth of incentives, the veteran right-hander simply must remain on the active roster from June 1 through Oct. 3. He'll receive $35,000 every day he's on the active roster during that span and an additional $500,000 if he's still there on Oct. 4, the regular season's final day.
The Braves provided a guaranteed contract of $2-2.5 million, which included incentives that could have allowed him to make more than $10 million had he pitched the entire season. This is what led them to say that their offer at a maximum level was actually greater than Boston's.
While this was true, Smoltz knew that he wasn't capable of pitching an entire season at the level necessary to maximize these incentives. Based on his physical capabilities, he felt his maximum earnings with Atlanta would approach $7 million.
"Nothing was owed to me," Smoltz said. "But that was never conveyed in conversation, or in some people's term, 'respect.' Frank Wren had to make a decision about whether I was going to be able to pitch. Was it going to be to the level where I could make 30 starts or throw 200 innings? Absolutely not."
Smoltz quickly grew comfortable with the fact that the Red Sox had no desire for him to join their starting rotation before June 1.
Given Boston's greater financial resources, the makeup of their already-solid rotation and that fact that the Braves hadn't yet secured Derek Lowe or Kenshin Kawakami, it's easy to argue the Red Sox were in better position to take a gamble on Smoltz, who admits there are no guarantees that he will definitely be able to pitch this season.
But Smoltz doesn't buy into this argument.
"Some could say it's a different situation for the [Red Sox] -- 'They have the money,'" Smoltz said. "That's not true. It's not a no-brainer. They looked at it completely different and they had a plan. The plan [in Atlanta] was that, 'We just always assumed that he wouldn't leave.'"
Dating back to the early days of this offseason, Smoltz felt the Braves were going to take him for granted. He'd made it known that he wanted to enjoy the rarity of playing an entire career for one organization. Plus, Atlanta is home to his children, friends and multiple charitable endeavors.
But in the end, proving yet again that even the most successful figures are swayed by emotion, it wasn't the place where he felt most wanted.
Needing to acquire at least two starting pitchers and a power-hitting outfielder, Wren was handed the task of handling one of the most influential offseasons the Braves have experienced. Complicating matters was the fact that his attempts to land Jake Peavy, A.J. Burnett and Rafael Furcal went unfulfilled.
But somewhere in this process, Smoltz felt he was owed more than two phone calls -- one which was perceived to be aimed toward asking questions about Peavy -- from Wren.
"That's not my point of saying had we had four more conversations, something might have worked out," Smoltz said. "But that's the reality of it. He had a tough job this offseason. He was facing a lot of things I'm sure a general manager doesn't want to have to face. Certainly I was a product of that."
With an opportunity to pitch without bearing the iconic responsibilities that existed while he was with the Braves, Smoltz heads to Boston with great anticipation and little resentment.
In fact, he stated that he had no plans to publicly discuss this process until Braves CEO and chairman Terry McGuirk irked him last week by telling a reporter, "I don't know where John's head is at." McGuirk later reiterated that he has the utmost respect for Smoltz.
Smoltz contends the Braves never saw him wearing another uniform and the reality is that it once was hard to imagine this or the possibility that he would play for somebody other than Bobby Cox, a man he credits for his previous decisions to remain in Atlanta, despite receiving greater financial offers elsewhere.
But the reality is that Smoltz could be standing on the mound for the Red Sox when they visit Turner Field in June. Subjectively, he'll stand as a visitor. But to many, he'll stand as an iconic figure who has been given the chance to return to his true home.
"I don't fell like I've left," Smoltz said. "I'm going somewhere. I didn't leave."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.