Alphabet soup as Smoltz leaves Atlanta for Boston
By Howard Ulman
BOSTON ó The familiar cap with the “A” on the front no longer fit, so John Smoltz turned to Plan B ó Boston.
After playing all 20 of his major league seasons with the Atlanta Braves, the only pitcher in baseball history with 200 wins and 150 saves is starting over at age 41 with the Red Sox.
“I’m as determined and I’m as focused as I’ve ever been,” Smoltz said Tuesday. “The uniform has changed. The desire won’t change.”
The right-hander who says he’s “doing great” after major shoulder surgery finalized his $5.5 million, one-year agreement, confident he can still contribute and eager to pitch beyond 2009.
“Age,” he said, “is just a number.”
Smoltz was gregarious and well-dressed with a white shirt, gray suit, red power tie ó and dark blue Red Sox cap with a big red “B” on it ó as he said he wasn’t bitter about his departure from the Braves.
“They were taking a different direction and, for the most part, left me with really no options,” Smoltz said.
“Atlanta will always be my home. I’ve raised four children there and built a school. That won’t change.”
But, he said, “we were way apart.”
The Red Sox were much more aggressive in trying to sign Smoltz than the Braves were in wanting to keep him.
He never thought of retiring and other teams did show interest, Smoltz said. But he was especially impressed that Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell, vice president of player personnel Ben Cherington and assistant trainer Mike Reinold traveled to Atlanta in early December to talk with him, watch him pitch and check his physical condition.
Smoltz also was attracted by the chance to play for a contender in front of passionate fans and by the team’s plan to be patient with his recovery. The Red Sox can afford to do that with a strong starting rotation of Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Brad Penny and Tim Wakefield. Young starters Clay Buchholz and Michael Bowden also have made significant offseason progress.
“They’re surrounded by studs, and whatever I can add I’m sure the value will be what I’ve been used to before,” Smoltz said.
He and general manager Theo Epstein said there is no timetable for his return, but when he does play again, the plan is for him to be a starter. Both expressed optimism about his shoulder after he was examined by Reinold in December and team physician Dr. Thomas Gill on Monday when Smoltz passed his physical “with flying colors,” Epstein said.
“Both said this is the best-case scenario for how strong he is right now,” Epstein said. “I don’t know if John would say this, but we feel if we absolutely had to have him in for April, physically he’d be capable to do that but we’re looking at the big picture here.
“I see him starting important games for us late in the season and, hopefully, into October.”
Smoltz is the all-time postseason leader in wins with a 15-4 record and strikeouts with 194. He has a 2.65 ERA in 207 postseason innings and was MVP of the NL championship series in 1992.
In the regular season he is 210-147 with a 3.26 ERA. Last season, he was 3-2 with a 2.57 ERA before going on the disabled list in June.
Smoltz’s ERA has been below 3.50 in each of his last 13 seasons, and it’s been above 4.00 in only two of his 20 seasons. In 202/3 innings at Fenway Park he has a 0.00 ERA.
“I love the fact that I’ve never given up an earned run in this park,” he said. “As long as I can keep that going I think everyone’s going to be happy.”
Smoltz can earn an additional $5 million in bonuses based on time on the active 25-man roster: $125,000 for his first day, $35,000 a day from June 1 through Oct. 3 and $500,000 for Oct. 4, the last scheduled day of the regular season.
Epstein said there was “healthy skepticism” at first about whether Smoltz would want to leave the Braves.
But when the Red Sox contingent saw him throw in Atlanta, “that’s when our interest really peaked,” Epstein said. “John was a lot farther along than we thought and expressed a genuine admiration for the Red Sox and it was mutual, so it progressed from there. ”
Smoltz would be just the eighth player to spend 20 consecutive seasons with one team, then switch to another, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The others are Hank Aaron, Phil Cavarretta, Ty Cobb, Harmon Killebrew, Willie Mays, Phil Niekro and Warren Spahn. All but Cavarretta are Hall of Famers.
Now Smoltz is starting over in a new league but with a chance to ease his way back with a team that needs him at the end of the season, not the beginning.
“I’ve met a lot of challenges in my life, and I don’t even view this as a hurdle,” he said. “This is an incredible opportunity.”