Smoltz regains his identity with Cardinals

ST. LOUIS – John Smoltz(notes), convinced his baseball career was over, forced himself to face the snowman's taunts. It stared at him, peering down from the Yankee Stadium scoreboard, one of the ugliest numbers a pitcher will ever see: 8, illuminated in a thousand watts, laughing at the old man who hadn't been this bad in more than a decade.

"I sat there for four more innings," Smoltz said. "Just sat there. And I said to myself, 'This is it.' My career was ending. I needed to watch it. Not because I thought I deserved it, but I wanted to take it in and see who I am."

Smoltz
Smoltz

John Smoltz has rebounded with the Cardinals, winning his first two starts with St. Louis.

(US Presswire/Scott Rovak)

He was the same man who, after his previous start in Baltimore, had retired to the weight room and asked himself why he should bother pitching anymore. Confusion wracked Smoltz. He was still here at 42 because he loves baseball, yes, but there was more. The reason dawned on him Aug. 6, the day the Yankees shellacked him for eight runs: Smoltz had spent so much time trying to settle a petty grudge – to show the only franchise he had known, the Atlanta Braves, that they erred in offering what he deemed a lowball contract – that it twisted the unflappable Smoltz into a dithering mess.

"Not only was it a joke," he said, "it was not who I am."

Today, Smoltz wears a St. Louis Cardinals uniform. Boston cut ties with him the day after the New York disaster. He figured it was coming, though it didn't lessen the jolt. It was his first such conversation with a general manager. For 21 years, Smoltz was a Brave. A stretch of bad starts was just that, something fixable. Like his former teammates Greg Maddux(notes) and Tom Glavine(notes), Smoltz learned the bubble that protects lifers doesn't exist for mercenaries.

And it still stings. It does. Smoltz is back to pitching well, allowing one run in 11 innings with 15 strikeouts in two starts for the Cardinals, and he said he's done it only by letting go. To a point, at least. Rather than use the slight as overt motivation, Smoltz compartmentalized it, placing the boiling pot of Atlanta sentiment deep in the recesses of his mind. The sourness lingers only in the periphery.

"The self-inflicted strife that built up wasn't what I needed to pitch," he said. "I wouldn't call it anger. I just didn't let go. That chip on my shoulder didn't get me results. On that mound, you have to be clear-minded. I didn't handle it well.

"I wanted to show Atlanta that I still could pitch. I knew going into it somebody was going to be right, either Boston or Atlanta. Maybe neither was. I know I wasn't."

The beef is well-documented. Smoltz, coming off major shoulder surgery, wanted the Braves to guarantee him more than $2 million even though he wouldn't be ready to pitch until June. Atlanta, reeling from a season that cratered because of starting-pitching injuries, wouldn't budge. On both sides, business and pragmatism trumped sentiment. Smoltz got $5.5 million from Boston. Atlanta took flak for letting a cherished son leave.

Smoltz never forgave the Braves. He said his last conversation with general manager Frank Wren took place over the winter, and it was about other players. Smoltz said he hadn't spoken with Braves president John Schuerholz in more than a year. When Wren didn't visit Smoltz during a winter rehab session at Georgia Tech and a group of Boston executives flew down to watch him work, Smoltz started to consider the inconceivable: ending his career somewhere other than Atlanta.

He'd won 210 games with the Braves and saved 154 more. He got a World Series ring and a Cy Young award. He made the crazy transition from dominant starter to lockdown closer, then did an even crazier 180 back to starting. And he was ever brilliant.

So he had trouble comprehending how he dipped so low in Boston, to an 8.32 earned-run average in eight starts. It wasn't just the mechanical issues he has corrected since joining the Cardinals. The mental defeat flummoxed Smoltz. Not since 1991, when he went 2-7 as a rookie, had Smoltz faced such a crisis of confidence. He didn't want to be wrong, didn't want to lose to Wren and Schuerholz and those he thought deprived him of his fitting finale. He also understands baseball mortality, and the numbers didn't lie.

"I never wanted to pitch to hang on," Smoltz said. "I never wanted to pitch beyond what my body said I could. When I decided to keep going and come here … I was not going to try to prove anything. Because if all I have is to prove something, then I have nothing."

His whole career, Smoltz used snubs – real or perceived – as motivation. He hated the doubts about his transition to relief and back – and loved them. Such accessories jazzed up the challenge.

And yet disdain can bubble into anger, and this late in his career Smoltz learned crossing that line is fraught with peril. He thought he knew what worked and what didn't. The older he gets, Smoltz said, the more he realizes he doesn't know all that much.

He does know he's not ready to retire, even as he turns 43 in May.

"In my mind, I'm pitching next year," Smoltz said. "I think [my arm] is going to get even better next year. The surgery takes a while. I came back quicker than most. So the full benefit will come next year. I have that much more reason to train. And to succeed."

His feelings could change. Smoltz might decide over the winter that his arm doesn't feel right. Whenever he stops, he'll spend a year or two honing his renowned golf game before trying to qualify for the PGA Tour. He'll do some broadcasting. It's not as if retirement will be the death knell it is for so many other professional athletes.

He just doesn't want to Favre it, nor does he want to get shoved out like the Braves did to Glavine. Smoltz thought he was there three weeks ago, a man at his nadir sitting on that bench in New York. He swallowed hard and asked who he was, and the answer was to his liking.

Someone with nowhere to go but up.