No sooner had the word gone up that the Boston Red Sox had designated John Smoltz for assignment than the cry arose on AJC.com message boards: The Braves need to re-sign him! Put him in the bullpen! Give him a ceremonial start! Let him retire as a Brave!
And I say: Uh, no.
John Smoltz enjoys feeling like the wronged party, but he isn’t one here. He left because the Red Sox offered more guaranteed money, which was fortunate for him. Because he pitched like a 42-year-old coming off arm surgery, which indeed he is.
Against the Yankees on Thursday, Smoltz yielded eight runs on nine hits in 3 1/3 innings. His record fell to 2-5. His ERA rose to 8.33. The Sox, amid their usual pitched battle in the AL East, couldn’t afford to give the guy they hired to win games in October even one more start in August.
Yes, it’s sad to think one of the greatest pitchers of his generation might go out this way, but this way was always a possibility. Nobody knew how Smoltz would pitch on his return, but the Rockefeller Red Sox could afford to pay $10 million to wait and see. The Braves could not.
After the misery of last season, Frank Wren’s first priority was to assemble a rotation that could begin rotating in April, and Smoltz wouldn’t be available until June. Wren, who has faced a series of tough calls, made another, and a lot of people around here ripped him for it. Chipper Jones, for one. John Smoltz, for another.
But now let’s take a deep breath and say it all together: Wren got it right. The Braves have a more balanced rotation than the imperial Sox, and the Braves have no apology to make to Smoltz.
He was a loyal and meritorious employee for more two decades, and then he chose to leave. It wasn’t as if Wren made no offer; it was that Smoltz deemed Wren’s offer insufficient, which was the player’s prerogative. So what exactly would be the point of adding him to the roster now?
Opponents are hitting .343 against him. (Albert Pujols, the best hitter in the world, is hitting .324 against everybody.) As bad as Rafael Soriano has been the past 10 days, opponents are hitting .171 against him. Smoltz is no longer starter material or closer material, and to sign him to work middle relief would be an insult to both parties.
Nor do the Braves need to sign him and let have one start or one inning so he can “retire” as a Brave. It’s not as if he’ll enter the Hall of Fame wearing a Red Sox cap. (If the Sox fail to make the playoffs, Smoltz will be as popular in New England as Bucky Dent.) Greg Maddux didn’t “retire” as a Brave, but the Braves just honored him by retiring his jersey and inducting him into their Hall of Fame. That’s all they need do for Smoltz. Tom Glavine, too.
And for those who think I’m being harsh only because I happen not to like Smoltz, I say this: I felt the same about Phil Niekro, whom I didn’t even know, when the Braves brought him back for one farewell start in 1987. I lobbied against such a stunt then — Niekro worked three innings on a Sunday afternoon, yielding six hits and five runs — and I do the same now.
John Smoltz was among the greatest Braves ever, but the Braves have to move on and so does he. There’s a place for sentimentality, and we saw it handled beautifully last month. It’s called a pregame ceremony. Works every time.
Department of self-reference: Oh, and since a lot of folks keep asking, here is the genesis of the not-so-great Smoltz-Bradley feud. And a grim and harrowing tale it is.