Orlantokyopolis, Fla. – Greetings from the Japan section of Epcot. Wish you could be … what’s that? Oh.
Greetings from Champion Stadium, where we have about 75 media members who’ve turned out today to welcome John Smoltz back to … wait, what’s that? Oh.
Welcome to Champion Stadium, where 50 or so members of the Japanese media and a couple of dozen American ink-stained wretches are all set to watch the Pacific Rim pitching showdown, with Boston’s Daisuke “Dice-K” Matsuzaka to face Braves newbie Kenshin Kawakami in a matchup of former Japanese League pitching stars.
Oh, and that old dude Smoltz showed up, too.
For the first time in a long time, Smoltz was in an environment where only a few reporters were actually interested in talking to him. Not that he’s not a big story in Boston, because he is, or has been.
But Boston media have already done their updates on every step of his rehab process to date, and this is the former Braves Bearded Icon’s first visit to Dark Star and first time seeing many of his former teammates since he opted to sign with the Red Sox on Jan. 13, instead of returning (for less money) to the Braves, the only team he ever pitched for in 20 seasons in the majors.
Smoltz, who’s rehabbing from June shoulder surgery and targeted for a June 1 return to the majors, traveled to Orlando for today’s game so he could see his old teammates and so he could play golf this afternoon with his pal, Tiger Woods, who staged a big comeback from five strokes down to win Sunday at Bay Hill.
Smoltz was driving to Orlando Sunday, so he didn’t get to see Tiger’s feat on TV. But he asked reporters for details this morning, laughing as he explained that he’d tell Tiger he saw the whole thing.
At about 8 a.m. Monday, Smoltz, who turns 42 in May, cruised into the Braves clubhouse, tanned and fit (he’s been lifting more weights during his rehab) and wearing a Michigan State shirt after his favorite college team beat my alma mater on Friday (thankfully, Michigan State then beat Louisville yesterday to advance to the Final Four — hey, if my Jayhawks had to lose, I’d prefer they lose to the eventual national champion). Smoltz changed into a Georgia basketball t-shirt before he came out to the dugout during batting practice, presumably because he needed to have something that matched the red Red Sox shorts he was wearing to work out.
”It’s weird,” Smoltz said of returning to the clubhouse where his presence was once the dominant feature, where his booming voice could be heard every morning as he razzed someone or predicted how badly he was going to beat someone on the golf course that afternoon, or whatever.
”Any time you’ve been somewhere and known a lot of guys — I’ve known Chipper forever, and known Glavine forever — you miss it. You go back to all the times you had.
Sorry, there are no polls available at the moment. “I’ll always be a part of it. But now, more or less, for it to work for me, you move on. Sometimes I get caught up in the ‘us,’ make the mistake there. I’ve got to remember not to make that mistake, because they bust my chops. I used to do it with other guys — ‘Let it go, let it go’ — so I’m very cautious.”
For those who’ve forgotten the details, the Braves offered less than half of the $5.5 million guarantee the Red Sox gave Smoltz, though the incentive packages offered by the two teams, if maxed out, would’ve resulted in similar amounts of total pay.
In other words, the Braves were willing to pay him almost as much to pitch well for them as the Red Sox were, but wouldn’t pay nearly as much if he wasn’t able to come back and pitch after last summer’s shoulder surgery.
So far, Smoltz looks like he might be able to make it back and pitch as well as the Red Sox envision. They want the winningest postseason pitcher in history to help them in the stretch drive and the postseason, assuming they get there.
That’s why they put Smoltz on a conservative rehab program designed to have him back on June 1, even though everyone who saw him pitch off the mound this week agrees with Smoltz, that he could be back a lot sooner than that if they wanted him to be.
”I knew there was going to be a slowdown process [mandated by Red Sox medical staff] after I signed, so that’s the reason I’m at the point I’m at now,” Smoltz said. “They wanted to maximize that time [to rehab cautiously]. If I’ve been proud of anything, I’ve been most proud that I’ve really waited.
”I’ve really learned to wait, and trust their program, and engage when I have time to engage, and not do too much.”
Mark Kotsay, a Braves teammate fo Smoltz’s for most of last season, is his teammate again in Boston. Kotsay, rehabbing from another back surgery and expected to play in May, stood in the batter’s box Saturday when Smoltz had his second bullpen session with the Red Sox.
Kotsay came away saying Smoltz could get major league hiters out right now.
”Great,” Smoltz described the bullpen session, which came a few days after he’d described his first session as “awkward,” a session that included a ball slipping from his hand in mid-delivery and fluttering past his face.
”My first [bullpen] went great,” he explained. “I just approached it with way too much, uh … the best way I can describe it is, I thought it was going to be like riding a bike. Awkward was the best word I could say, the ball came out good, but my timing — it felt like I’d never been on the mound before.
”My second one was great. I threw all five pitches, got through the zone, so that part was good. So now I just throw bullpens every three days and wait my time.”
Braves manager Bobby Cox said he couldn’t believe how good Smoltz looked when Cox watched him throw off the bullpen back around Christimas. Cox said today he has no doubts Smoltz will be back to pitch, and pitch well, for Boston this summer.
Smoltz had terse words for some Braves officials after his decision (and their reaction to it) in January, and in several interviews he’s done since then. But he sounds now as if he’s moved past any bitterness, at least publicly. He’s been able to turn the page and move on.
”You know, I’m fine,” he said. “I really am. I’m on a whole new plan, in a whole new situation. You get remnants of … I miss the heck out of Orlando. It’s a great place. Any time you spend a lot of time somewhere, it’s great to reminisce.
”But’s it’s going to be like really opposites — I’m not in the same league, not in the same division, so it’s not going to be anything other than a whole new challenge for me. And given the circumstances, now that I’m two months removed, I think of what could have been, and I could be doing nothing right now, realistically.
”So given the way things happened, it’s been a great transition. It really has. And they [Red Sox] have made it great.”
♣ Couple of quick things: We’re running out of time before the first pitch, so I’ll wrap it up by just giving you couple of newsy items…. Charlie Morton (oblique strain) was placed on the DL retroactive to March 27, the maximum a DL assignment can be retro’d in spring training. He hasn’t had a setback, but just missed too much time this spring to be ready for Triple-A Gwinnett’s season opener…. Cox said he hasn’t decided on who’ll hit leadoff, and said there are still a lot of candidates, without going into details. 2B Kelly Johnson is hitting there again today, with CF Jordan Schafer hitting ninth. Josh Anderson, who was presumed the favorite entering spring training to win the CF and leadoff jobs, isn’t playing today. As I wrote yesterday, I think the Braves are going to go with Schafer in CF. Cox said they wouldn’t announce the final roster until Friday or Saturday when the team plays its last two exhibition games against the Tigers at Turner Field…. Talk about an anticlimax: Houston is breaking camp Wednesday and returning to Texas to play an exhibition game at its Round Rock affiliate. The Astros plan to play Double-A players Thursday against the Braves’ big-league club in the Braves’ last Grapefruit game in Florida. The Braves leave for Atlanta after that game. Cox said he’ll probably play his regulars Thursday, but not for long.
“TO LIVE IS TO FLY” by Townes Van Zandt
Won’t say I love you, babe,
Won’t say I need you, babe,
But I’m gonna get you babe
And I will not do you wrong.
Living’s mostly wasting time
And I’ll waste my share of mine
But it never feels to good,
So let’s don’t take to long.
You’re soft as glass
And I’m a gentle man;
We got the sky to talk about
And the earth to lie upon.
Days, up and down they come
Like rain on a congadrum
Forget most, remember some
But don’t turn none away.
Everything is not enough
And nothin’ is to much to bear.
Where you been is good and gone
All you keep is the getting there.
To live is to fly
Low and high,
So shake the dust off of your wings
And the sleep out of your eyes.
Goodbye to all my friends
It’s time to go again
Think of all the poetry
And the pickin’ down the line
I’ll miss the system here
The bottom’s low
And the treble’s clear
But it don’t pay to think to much
On things you leave behind.
I will be gone
But it won’t be long
I will be a’bringin’ back the melodies
And rhythm that I find.
We all got holes to fill
Them holes are all that’s real.
Some fall on you like a storm,
Sometimes you dig your own.
The choice is yours to make,
Time is yours to take;
Some sail upon/dive into the sea,
Some toil upon the stone.
To live is to fly
Low and high,
So shake the dust off of your wings
And the sleep out of your eyes;
Shake the dust off of your wings
And the tears out of your eyes.