AUGUSTA – He was just married last weekend and made his season minor-league pitching debut Thursday night, none of which would be that unusual if John Smoltz wasn’t 42 and looking slightly out of place with teammates shortly removed from their high school proms.
“I was in A ball in 1986 when a lot of these guys weren’t even born,” he said. “Their meal money is $29. Mine was $4.50. It was McDonald’s every night. They won’t be eating McDonald’s tonight.”
Welcome to another John Smoltz rehab assignment. Not sure how many this makes now. But it has to go down as his most difficult — less because he’s coming off surgery for a torn labrum last June than the fact he was set to pitch in a stadium just 1.6 miles from Augusta National (venue for his other passion: golf).
“Drove by it on the way here,” he said, smiling, before his scheduled start. “Beautiful place. Played there with Tiger two years ago.”
When he is finished with baseball, he wants to play on the Senior’s Tour. But this is was about putting that off for a while.
After being drop-kicked by the Braves in negotiations last winter, Smoltz signed with Boston. After some delays, his first start came with Single-A Greenville, ironically a former Braves’ affiliate, and in his home state for 21 years. His arm didn’t fall off. Pitching in a packed Lake Olmstead Stadium — it also was $1 beer night — he allowed one hit in three innings and struck out two. He said he threw at “80-85 percent.”
“Mentally, this did a lot for me,” said Smoltz, who then catered a post-game spread for teammates.
His Greenville teammates were appropriately awed. Center fielder Pete Hissey, 19, said: “We were all in front of our lockers with a baseball and pen waiting when he got here. And then we’re like, ‘OK, who’s going to be the first to ask him for an autograph?’”
Better hurry. Boston’s plans are for Smoltz to pitch Tuesday in Double-A Portland, Me., and then move on to Triple-A Pawtucket in the next few weeks.
“I’m progressing toward the middle of June,” he said. “And then, uh, yeah — I know what that means.”
Braves at Fenway Park: June 19-21. Red Sox at Turner Field: June 26-28.
Smoltz on the timing: “I could take it or leave it. Probably leave it, actually. If it were my fifth or sixth start, it would be no big deal. But if it’s my second or first, it’s almost bigger than I want it to be.”
Sorry. Not buying that one.
Nothing is ever bigger than John Smoltz wants it to be. It’s a reason he’ll go down as possibly Atlanta sports’ greatest competitor. To make yet another improbable comeback from another career-threatening injury and do it against the Braves? Nothing would be sweeter for him.
This rehab stint never should have come in the uniform of a Boston affiliate. The Braves’ low-balling of Smoltz would have ranked as one of the franchise’s worst decisions ever even if he had spontaneously combusted Thursday (he didn’t). They guaranteed $2 million to a pitcher who provided them with the greatest post-season moments in their history, defying medical and baseball logic in the process. The Red Sox knew him only from highlights. They guaranteed $5.5 million.
Smoltz said, “What drives me is I still love pitching. I’m not out to prove anybody wrong. I believe I’m good enough to dominate. I don’t believe I’m just good enough to get by. For what I did the longest time in Atlanta, it’s understood what I’ve overcome.”
But it’s easy to pick up on some lingering bitterness from his departure, specifically comments from Braves executive Terence McGuirk. “He said something like, ‘I don’t know where John’s head is at. We offered him the same contract.’ It wasn’t close to the same.”
But he was mostly smiles. He pitched two innings of a simulated game in Ft. Myers last Friday, then returned to his Alpharetta home for his second marriage, to Kathryn Darden, then back to Ft. Myers, Fla., for more work.
The rehab schedule of late has been “like a series of quarterback audibles,” given his strength and weather conditions. The Sox have tried to keep him on a slow, steady pace. “Spring training was like going to Augusta National, and all you can do is hit a pitching wedge off the green. And you’re so close, you’re right there and you want to play, but you can’t.”
He was back on a mound Thursday, wearing No. 29, and was introduced as “future Hall of Famer, John Smoltz.” And it didn’t look like the end.