Spring training opens next week and John Smoltz doesn’t have a job. This might unnerve most 42-year-old pitchers who don’t want to hear from baseball people or medical people or certainly Joe-in-section-312-with-nacho-sauce-on-his-chin-people that his career might be over. But the waiting doesn’t bother Smoltz.
“I’ve been doing what I’ve always done this time of year – throwing every other day and getting ready for the season,” he said by phone while driving to his workout. “I’m at a good place with everything that has gone on in my life. I’m just going to let this play out.”
He is not retiring. Nor has he decided for certain that he will hold off signing with a team until mid-season – as Pedro Martinez did with Philadelphia last July – but acknowledges that is a possibility.
“A lot of people are speculating right now,” he said. “But I can assure you it hasn’t come from anything that I’ve said.”
Here’s one possibility that nobody should close a door to: Smoltz returning to the Braves.
Start with this: We saw two different aging pitchers last year. The first Smoltz came off shoulder surgery for a torn labrum, signed with Boston and then crashed in spectacular fashion. He was 2-5 with an 8.32 ERA in eight games. He allowed eight runs in 3.1 innings in his last start against the New York Yankees. The Red Sox said, “Enough,” and released him.
The second Smoltz came from some alternate universe. He signed with St. Louis. In his first start, he struck out seven straight and threw five shutout innings against San Diego.
Half of Boston went on suicide watch.
The overall numbers with the Cardinals weren’t award-worthy (1-3, 4.26, in six games). But throwing 40 strikeouts with only nine walks in 38 innings was significant.
Those numbers told Smoltz it wasn’t over.
“Overall, I didn’t have the outcome that I wanted. I didn’t have the success rate that I wanted,” he said. “But I learned some things along the way. There were things I tried to do that I couldn’t, and at the end of the day I realized they probably weren’t within the realm of possibility [health-wise after the surgery]. When I went to St. Louis, I was facing some humiliation and oh-no type of things. But I had some success, and it was a great two months in St. Louis. I’m proud of the way I went through one of the toughest seasons in my life.”
There were rumors he would re-sign with the Cardinals. Then came speculation about the New York Mets, Philadelphia, Detroit. So far, nothing.
The Braves? Yes, it could happen.
“Nothing is closed for me,” he said. “That’s why I’m talking about taking my time, letting things play out. A lot of things will go into this decision.”
Bobby Cox phoned him last week.
“He just called to check and see how I was doing,” Smoltz said. “I know there’s been a lot of rumors about here or there. We’ll see what happens.”
There would be some symmetry to Smoltz’s return. Cox is managing in his final season. Imagine Smoltz signing with the Braves in the summer, whether as a late-rotation starter or reliever, trying to get him a second championship.
“I admire him and it was a pleasure to be around him for so long,” Smoltz said of Cox. “Nothing would make it a more perfect scenario than if the Braves went out and won the whole thing in his last year. That’s how much respect I have for him.”
Regarding his own future, there was little for Smoltz to offer, other than he feels good and wants to keep pitching.
“Nothing is in the works right now that I can speak of,” he said. “It’s one of those things where I’m not going to make a quick decision or do something that just doesn’t make sense.”
If nobody phones by June or July, he will have little choice but to think about retirement.
“As time goes on, in my heart and mind, I’ll make a decision and be at peace with it,” he said.
For now, the heart, the mind and the arm want to pitch. All he needs is a buyer.