Smoltz is on Varitek's side of the fence

Tim Brown

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Half an hour's drive down Interstate 75 here there's a 100-mile stretch of road through the Everglades called "Alligator Alley," which sounds more interesting than it really is.

Every inch on both sides of that highway is fenced, most of it 10 feet high, with strands of barbed wire strung across the top. If there are alligators along this swampy run of road, they're either on the other side of those fences or they're also pole vaulters.

For nearly two hours between Fort Myers and Fort Lauderdale on Saturday afternoon I considered those fences, wondering if they were erected to keep me out (really, the name of the place was enough), or to keep whatever's in there in.

I'd spent the morning at Boston Red Sox camp, where two of the sweat-ridden were veterans John Smoltz and Jason Varitek.

And I got to thinking about what keeps a ballplayer, or any person, in his place, and what inspires them to go over the fence.

Across a weird winter, and in a manner of speaking, Smoltz and Varitek had considered their own career boundaries, worlds as they'd always known them.

Smoltz, coming up on 42, had pitched 20 big league seasons, all for the Atlanta Braves, and before about a month ago had never really thought about leaving. He made, like, $130 million. He won a championship. He's going to retire someday, and someday soon. And he just … left. On Saturday he stood in Red Sox camp in a Red Sox uniform and signed Red Sox pennants.

Varitek, who'll be 37 soon, has played 12 seasons, every single day of them wearing this uniform. He, too, had made his money. He won two championships. He's a catcher with more than 10,000 innings on those legs, so there's a good chance retirement is coming, certainly so if that .220 batting average is an accurate gauge. But he could not bear to leave. On Saturday he was same ol' Tek, crankin' it up on Day 1, good to go.

Granted, give Varitek another eight years and he might view the Red Sox the way Smoltz came to see the Braves, as a cold and unappreciative corporate Death Star. But, I doubt it.

And maybe this is as much about the money as it is Smoltz's sudden willingness – even eagerness – to jump, or Varitek's refusal to wear someone else's colors at any price. But Varitek's agent, Scott Boras, said every time he brought another team's curiosity to his attention during the offseason, Varitek would send him back to the Red Sox. And Smoltz said he didn't think he could ever feel this good again about an organization, considering how long he'd lived on the other side of the fence.

Smoltz said when he'd think about staying with the Braves forever, it would have been because he had worked hard and won (or, nearly as often, saved) games and done whatever the team had asked. He always figured that if they wanted him, there'd never be a time he'd be a free agent.

"Well," he said Saturday, "I was a free agent four times. The fourth time led me to a uniform change."

Smoltz didn't say he regretted his first three decisions. But, perhaps, he didn't have to, given the fourth decision.

"I only stayed for Bobby Cox," he said. "Only. Gave up a lot. Sacrificed a lot. And you know you could say I was that close to retiring as an Atlanta Brave."

Tom Glavine is learning how difficult that can be, no matter the history.

"Means nothing," Smoltz said. "Means nothing."

Smoltz will earn $5.5 million, with a chance to make a little more than $6 million. The Red Sox have told him he won't pitch before June, when he'll be a year removed from shoulder surgery.

He hates that. But, then, he can appreciate the strategy, one presumably that's best for the club and the guy carrying the shoulder.

"Sit back and think about it, this thing's got potential great year written all over it," Smoltz said. "If I was in Atlanta, I'd be getting ready to pitch in April."

Yeah, he's a little bitter in the moments he's drawn back to the Braves, in the moments he's asked to explain what he's doing here, on this side. As it is, he hardly knows where he's going, hasn't found a spot for a good meal, or a challenging golf course. He feels a little goofy at times, you know, when everybody goes off in one direction and he goes in another.

It's part of the happy transition, the one Varitek wanted no part of. That's why the damn fence is there, you know? Might be something with big teeth out there.

Varitek sat outside the spring clubhouse here, his hair matted. His voice was flat and syrupy, as if he'd gone too long without water.

He was asked if he'd ever had any doubt he would be here, about to prep another pitching staff, about to figure out what happened to his stroke from the left side. I mean, it'd almost always been his more vulnerable side, but .201?

"I wouldn't say there wasn't any doubt," he said. "But there wasn't any doubt what I wanted."

He said he was exactly where his heart was. In kind of a strange contract, he'll make $5 million this season. He has a mutual option for next season, for $5 million if the club picks it up, for $3 million if he does. So, he's guaranteed two years, if he wants them.

"Peace of mind," Varitek, the captain, said. "I know I'm going to be in this uniform. I get closer to retiring in this uniform. Not saying I'm getting close to retiring any time soon.

"I'm one step closer. I'm going to be in this uniform. I'm proud of that."

A few minutes before, his manager, Terry Francona, had been asked about Varitek's hitting. Like, would he pinch-hit for Varitek as he did late last season. Like, did he believe Varitek was still capable of catching 120 or 130 games, particularly if he was an offensive sinkhole, no matter his uncommon touch with his pitching staff.

Varitek waved it off. There were bigger issues here.

"What was important to me was to maintain the legacy," he said. To stay.

Yeah, Smoltz would get it. Sort of.

"Maybe it's not a choice," Smoltz said.

These are the hard decisions, of course, which lead to more hard decisions. The right answers are separated from the wrong by almost nothing. So John Smoltz ends up beside Jason Varitek, because, well, because the fences maybe are only so high.

That wouldn't seem like much, except they're topped by barbed wire.