The next time you see John Smoltz he may be standing on a mound with a baseball in his right hand or he may be on a golf course with a club in his hands or he may be in a high school gym with a whistle hanging from his neck or he may be in a television studio with a microphone in front of him. You just don’t know because Smoltz doesn’t know.
“I haven’t pursued anything; I’m in that wait and see mode,” Smoltz said last week. “We’re getting closer to whatever that time frame is for me.”
One of the most versatile pitchers in baseball history, Smoltz is still at home in the Atlanta suburb of Alpharetta because he hasn’t decided if he wants to continue pitching, extending his major league career to a 22nd season.
“I don’t have anything official right now,” he said about his pitching plans. “I haven’t been 100 percent committed. I’m at such peace with where I am. I’ve stayed in shape. I don’t know if I’m going to pitch, but I haven’t ruled it out. I have a lot of options, and I don’t want the options to rule me.”
Smoltz will turn 43 years old in two months. His two closest colleagues, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, retired in the last two years. Both last pitched in 2008, but Maddux announced his retirement after that season while Glavine retained some thought of pitching in 2009 and didn’t formally announce his retirement until he took a front-office job with the Braves this winter.
Maddux and Glavine will be eligible for induction into the Hall of Fame in 2014. Having pitched last season, Smoltz will have to wait until 2015, or 2016 if he pitches this year.
The Three Amigos pitched together so long in Atlanta that they would have made a great story entering the Hall together. That honor, however, has not influenced and is not influencing Smoltz’s decision. In fact, he didn’t even know exactly how the system worked until he asked me during our lengthy telephone conversation last Thursday.
“It’s been a weird off-season,” he said. “I haven’t made my plans, yet I laugh at the rumors and speculation that’s out there.”
The primary speculation, which was noted here last week, was that Smoltz might follow the example of Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez and delay signing and pitching until some time during the season.
“By no means have I come to a firm decision one way or another,” he said. “I’m not prepared to say I’m officially retired or I’m going to do this or that. I’m talking to my family.”
Would he pitch half a season, which is basically what he did last year, though not by design? “I don’t know,” Smoltz said.
After 21 years and 14 division championships with Atlanta, Smoltz began last season with the Red Sox but lasted only six weeks and eight starts. The Cardinals then signed him, and he started seven games for them in the final six weeks of the season.
“Last year I learned a lot about myself and the challenge I was taking on,” said Smoltz, who was returning from shoulder surgery. “There was something at the end that felt good. I went from Boston, where I worked my butt off, and wound up having good things happen in St. Louis.”
The Red Sox, Smoltz said, “had a game plan for me that I may or may not come to grips with. They said ‘we don’t need you until the end’ and they slowed me down. Inherently I struggled with that. I was never in position to help Boston. I pitched my butt off, but I was very limited.”
In eight starts for the Red Sox, Smoltz had a 2-5 record and 8.33 earned run average. “It was an unbelievable experience, a great city, great team,” the pitcher said. “You fall into traps, and I made some mistakes. When it didn’t work out the way they would have liked it to, they released me. I was in limbo for about a month, and St. Louis came along. They saw some flaws, and I was able to overcome them. I threw the ball really well.”
After his 1-3 record and 4.26 e.r.a. in seven starts, Smoltz relieved in the third game of the division series against the Dodgers and struck out five of the first six batters he faced.
“That made everything worth it,” Smoltz said.
Given his mixed efforts last season, he acknowledged the predicament teams have if they consider signing him: “Are we getting the guy from Boston or the guy from St. Louis?”
But Smoltz reiterated that he isn’t ready to make a decision.
“I have a bevy of options I’m weighing,” he said. “I’m in no hurry to be in a position to run with the opportunities that have been presented to me. I don’t want to jump emotionally into something and say I’ll do this. I’m in the process of checking things out. I’m not in a desperate mode. I’m in a nice location liking where I’m at. When I come to grips of where I am, it will be definite.”
If he decides baseball is what he wants, Smoltz will be ready. His workouts are serious and beneficial. “I’m enjoying what I’m doing,” he said. “I’m weird by nature the way I work out. I play a lot of basketball. I have for 25 years. I love playing basketball.”
“I also love coaching basketball,” he added. “I’ll do that, if golf becomes something I can’t do.”
Golf? Yes, Smoltz plans to pursue a new game professionally as a competitor on the senior PGA tour.
“I want to apply what I learned in my sport to take golf to the next level,” said Smoltz, who has long been an avid golfer. “I’m not financially motivated. I believe if you believe you can do something, put in your time and do it. When I got into golf, I saw how intriguing it was. The pressure of hitting a shot under the gun is unbelievable.”
Though he said he has never taken lessons and “never really practiced,” Smoltz is serious and passionate about the game. To what extent?
“I’ve designed my whole backyard for it,” he said. “It has two greens, nine tees, a big putting green and all the chipping areas you want.”
“There’s a lot of things stacked up against me,” he added, “but I’m not concerned about that until I do what I have to do. The simple goal is to see how far I can go. I’m going to test the pressure I’ve been under – seventh games I’ve pitched, coming back from injuries. It’s been a passion of mine, like coaching basketball.”
Lest anyone doubt Smoltz’s ability to qualify for the senior tour and succeed on it, remember that in his baseball career he switched from starting to relieving, then back to starting, and he succeeded at each juncture.
“When I went from starter to closer, 90, 95, 98 percent of people said I can’t do it,” he recalled. “Then it becomes ‘this is unbelievable; this is what gets him into the Hall of Fame.’ When I went back to starting, they said I was even crazier. They said no way I could pitch 200 innings. I pitched 232 innings.”
Smoltz actually pitched more than 200 innings in each of his three complete seasons in the second time around as a starter. His won-lost record in those three seasons was 44-24, a .647 percentage. In his first starting stretch, 1988 through 1999, he had a 157-113 record (.581).
Smoltz became the Braves’ closer in 2001 after his elbow recovered from Tommy John surgery. He gained 10 saves in 11 chances that season, but in his second appearance in 2002 he gave up eight runs to the Mets in the ninth inning.
“I had never given up eight runs in an inning,” Smoltz said, seeming to shudder at the gruesome memory. “I didn’t know how I was going to get through the season.”
But he got through it with a then league record 55 saves, joining Dennis Eckersley as the only pitchers who attained season totals of 20 wins and 50 saves. He wound up with 154 saves as a closer.
It was early in his status as a reliever that Smoltz had one of his most uncomfortable experiences as a pitcher.
“It was new-age baseball,” he recounted. “They asked pitchers what your favorite music is. I said I don’t know; let it be natural.”
When he emerged from the bullpen one day, he heard the ABBA tune, “Dancing Queen.” “Oh my gosh,” he said to himself, then later told the music maestros, “Guys, you’re going to have to come up with something else. I can’t come out to ‘Dancing Queen.’”
So for his next appearance he went to the mound accompanied by AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.”
“The place went nuts,” Smoltz said. “They had all these lights flashing. I had to put my glove over my face because I was laughing.”
On subsequent occasions, he recalled, “Maddux ran into the clubhouse and turned up every TV.”
(In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit I don’t know “Thunderstruck” from “Dancing Queen.” If I were selecting music for relievers entering games, I would tend toward something like “1812 Overture” or “William Tell Overture.”)
Smoltz said he had only one regret in his willingness to switch to relieving. It was what the Braves wanted, he said, and he did what the Braves wanted because he wanted to remain with the Braves his entire career.
“I made it known that I wanted to be there,” he said. “I painted a position that I didn’t want to go anywhere. The team said I needed to be in that role, and I wanted to be with Bobby Cox and the Atlanta Braves so I said yes, I’ll do it.”
After the 2004 season, Smoltz related, general manager John Schuerholz asked him which role would make the team better.
“I said getting a closer and making me a starter,” Smoltz said. “We were missing power in the rotation. Outside of Mariano Rivera there’s no closer you could link to winning championships without a strong starting rotation. As a starter, we never got eliminated in any series. As a closer, we never won a series. When you have a guy as competitive as I am, that was very difficult.”
Smoltz, of course, did not end up spending his entire career with the Braves. Neither did Glavine. People talk about players’ lack of loyalty, but clubs are at least equally guilty of it.
Now Smoltz ponders his next team or his next career.
“Anything I do I’m going to have a blast,” he said. “Just don’t ask me to be a pitching coach. I can’t deal with the philosophy now, the pitch counts, the limits put on pitchers.”
He scoffed at the idea of pitching coaches telling pitchers “just give me five innings, 75 pitches,” and he scoffed at the belief that the limitations, including “a pitcher can’t pitch more than 15 percent more innings,” prevent injuries.
“Today’s pitchers coming up have been brainwashed,” he said. “I don’t believe in it. It would be tough for me; I admit it. They could pay me $25 million and I wouldn’t do it.”
As for injuries, he said, “I don’t see how we could have reversed the trend so bad – pitch less and less, have more injuries.”
UPDATE (March 16, 2010):
On Tuesday, five days after Smoltz talked about the uncertainty of his future, he announced that he would be going to work in television, serving as an analyst in studio and on game telecasts for the MLB network and on Braves’ telecasts on the Peachtree network. However, he did not announce his retirement as a player.
THIS OZ NO WEB WIZARD
When Ozzie Guillen is your manager, controversy comes with the territory. The White Sox manager is notorious for his uninhibited comments in reaction to comments or acts of others, and he initiates controversy as well.
Just the other day he stirred up a flap in Chicago by announcing that he was going to create an Ozzie Web site. Given Guillen’s free spirited comments, such a site promised instant and frequent controversy. But Guillen thought better of the idea and canceled his plans.
The site, however, didn’t have to appear on the Internet to create controversy. Word circulated that Kenny Williams, the White Sox general manager, ordered Guillen to cease and desist. Not so, Williams said.
“I was asked about Ozzie’s Web site,” Williams said on the telephone. “There was some report that I denied permission for him, which was false because I was never asked. However, I’m only in favor of players playing, coaches coaching and managers managing. All the peripheral stuff – the blogs, the Web sites, the Twitters – I think all that stuff is a distraction and I’d rather our guys focus on winning a championship. If players can do that stuff and do their jobs, fine. However, if they don’t do their jobs it becomes an issue.”
TAYLOR JOHN AT YANKEE STADIUM
Tommy John does not get invited to the Yankees’ annual Old-Timers’ day, and he thinks he knows why. Ten years ago his son Taylor replaced the West Point Glee Club in singing the National Anthem at Yankee Stadium on July 4, and John believes he has not been forgiven by the club official whose decision was overridden.
July 4 is George Steinbrenner’s birthday, but it is also the anniversary of the day Lou Gehrig delivered his memorable “luckiest man on the face of the earth” speech. Gehrig died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and the head of the ALS New York chapter asked the Yankees to have Taylor perform the anthem.
Told that the role was already filled, Dorine Gordon, the ALS official, called Steinbrenner, who agreed that the glee club could sing another time.
“After Taylor sang the anthem and God Bless America, George called and said ‘that was tremendous,’” Taylor’s father recalled the other day, adding about the overruled official, “She has not liked me for a long time.”
John recalled the incident in talking about Taylor’s death last week at the age of 28. Taylor was an ALS favorite, singing at some of the New York chapter’s functions.
“Taylor was a talented singer who performed at many chapter events. He will be greatly missed,” says a tribute on the chapter’s Web site.
Taylor came to public notice when, as a 10-year-old, he made his Broadway debut in the role of Gavroche in the musical “Les Miserables.”