The last time I doubted John Smoltz was April 6, 2005. No sense denying it because electronic libraries, like DNA evidence, would convict me in court anyway.
The Braves lost their season opener that year at Florida 9-0. In what was to be Smoltz’s celebrated return to starter after three seasons as a closer, he allowed six runs and seven hits in roughly five minutes (or 1 2/3 innings). For one of the few times in his career, people could scream: “Hah! Told you so!”
The cynical, know-it-all columnist that day seized the moment. The review of Smoltz’s start included this excerpt, “Smoltz didn’t have a bad day. Five runs in four innings — that’s a bad day. Seven runs in 1 2/3 innings is not a bad day — it’s usually the last day. It’s the kind of start that usually comes with a bus ticket. Or a bullpen assignment. Or both.”
If you’re looking for the rest of column, it’s in the Smithsonian, adjacent to the Edsel exhibit.
One great thing about Smoltz: Unlike most of his contemporaries, he made no secret that he was aware of everything that was said and written about him. It fueled him. When someone spends every moment competing with a me-against-the-world mindset, it’s often because they really believe it. The thought of sticking it to critics can be wonderful motivation.
So it was that in Smoltz’s next start five days later, he had 15 strikeouts against the New York Mets and allowed only two runs in 7 1/3 innings. Among his postgame comments: “Some people wanted to send me to the minors.”
I bring this up now because it illustrates the resolve, determination and greatness of an athlete who was celebrated for real Friday. The Braves retired Smoltz’s No. 29. It’s a number he never wanted — he sought Mark Lemke’s No. 20 (it represented an attainable win total). Ironically, pitching prospects would line up for 29 now.
At a luncheon in his honor, Smoltz wrapped up his speech saying, “I’m an Atlanta Brave for life.” It was a nice sentiment. It would be nicer still if he were an Atlanta Brave again.
Notwithstanding the ugliness of Smoltz’s split from the organization, the Braves should do everything possible to bring the former pulse of their pitching staff back into the fold at some point. He was great as a starter, great as a closer, great even after orthopedic surgeons opened up his shoulder and saw hamburger meat. He was a great in the postseason (15-4, 2.67) for a franchise so often associated with postseason failures.
He would be a great pitching coach. I must not be the only one who believes that because Smoltz acknowledged Friday that two teams (not the Braves) approached him not long after retirement to ask if he had any desire to be a pitching coach.
He declined. He’s enjoying being a broadcaster, and it’s unlikely he ever would sacrifice family or golf time again to work a full baseball schedule.
But imagine Smoltz as a roving minor-league instructor. Or a sort of screening member of the scouting department. He did not completely dismiss the idea when I asked him about the possibility.
“I’m looking at broadcasting as a two-year deal, and we’ll see what happens after that,” he said. “There’s a lot of things I said I would never do but I ended up doing them. But you can probably scratch politics off the list.”
Scouts recognize talent. But few can recognize whether an athlete has the intangibles to succeed. When Smoltz goes to Cooperstown one day, it won’t be merely talent that got him there — it will because of everything he overcame, including medical odds.
His good friend, comedian Jeff Foxworthy, joked that he watched Smoltz one game and, “He was adjusting his sleeve, and you could see the duct tape and the bungee cords under his jersey. He was throwing 45 [miles per hour], but he wanted the ball.”
Imagine having someone who could recognize that in a player?
“If you lined up all the draftees and allowed me to ask them questions, I think I could peg a lot of them, just based on what they said,” Smoltz said. “And I think I could help them along the way. But I have to wait for the right time.”
If that time ever comes, the Braves should have a uniform ready. And he can wear his old number.
By Jeff Schultz