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Beginner's Pluck

Smoltz, 38, is pitching at start of games again instead of the end, and he's not looking back

June 06, 2005|Tim Brown | Times Staff Writer

John Smoltz so badly wants you to understand him, and to see his last 18 years as he does.

Unless you don't want to.

Then he is past that, through with justifying himself as a pitcher. He is through with the third-wheel heartache and his bearing of organizational and emotional burdens. He has God and family and team beside him, and so there is peace where anxiety once lay.

Unless you've got 30 minutes.

"I'm not looking for credit," he says one night. "I'm just looking for, 'Job well done.' "

The distinction is subtle, but meaningful to Smoltz, whose four-year evolution from starter to closer to starter for the Atlanta Braves was as trying as it was gratifying.

"It's hard to talk about when you're going through the year and it's pain you're going through," he says. "People don't want to hear that, especially if you're having success. So for the most part, no one really understands. Maybe they never will.

"The hardest thing I've had to do is deal with the closer's role. I was doing the best I could. But there were times I was like, 'Man, I don't know how I'm going to get through this.' "

Smoltz is among the most approachable men in baseball. Soft eyes follow a hard handshake, a changeup off a fastball. As vigorously as he defends a career spent explaining who he is and why that is, he dismisses the complexities, hardships and misunderstandings within it, all of which he raises.

He possesses Cy Young Award bearing, born of his 24-8 season with the Atlanta Braves nearly a decade ago, and his handful of near misses. He is a postseason legend, and yet his signature moment was a team loss in the seventh game of a World Series.

At 38, after four elbow surgeries spread over a career as a starter and then as a closer, either of which would stand alone impressively, Smoltz is back in the first inning.

There were times, he says, when the journey was satisfying enough. The Braves won a World Series and played in four others, but his standing on those pitching-wealthy teams invariably was third, behind Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine.

He won 157 regular-season and 12 postseason games from 1988 to 1999, and then the ligament in his right elbow, already thready, gave out. He underwent Tommy John surgery, sat out more than a year, and in 2001 became a closer.

Other than Eric Gagne and, perhaps, Mariano Rivera, he became the closer. In 3 1/2 seasons, he saved 154 games in 168 opportunities, joined Dennis Eckersley as the only pitchers to win 150 games and save 150 games and, because of it, is considered by many as a Hall of Famer waiting for induction.

"He better be in the Hall of Fame," Gagne says. "He's changed the face of the game."

Just when it appeared he had found the place where he would not be lost in a rotation of superstars -- Maddux and Glavine were in Chicago and New York -- where he hoped the people of Atlanta might appreciate his talent and sacrifice, where he could pitch to his heart's content and not to his elbow's destruction, John Smoltz asked for his old job back.

Through 12 starts, he is 4-4 with a 3.12 earned-run average, has allowed two or fewer runs in eight of his starts, and has received two or fewer runs in support eight times.

Once compelled by a stricken elbow to become a sidearm pitcher in the four days between regular-season starts, and once driven by bottomless aspiration to develop a knuckleball in the off-season, Smoltz is again over the top and throwing hard, now seven or more innings at a time.

No one knows for sure how many pitches that fresh ligament has in it. They -- Smoltz, Manager Bobby Cox, pitching coach Leo Mazzone, General Manager John Schuerholz -- will all know when they get there.

In the meantime, Smoltz will take the baseball every five days and do his fastball-slider-splitter-curveball thing. If that's good enough, and if everybody goes along with the plan, Smoltz will pile the pitches together, stack the starts to the roof, ice the elbow and maybe take another shot or two at October.

He will start over again tonight, then start over again tomorrow, and if it doesn't lead back to the World Series, then he'd hope everybody would know he tried, that he achieved, that his best often was better than anyone else's.

"Nothing that was at the end of the road drove me to be the best," he says.

No, that came quite early, as he was growing up in Lansing, Mich. His father, John Adam, nudged John into sports, but with an edge that developed in John unusual desires to work and win.

Smoltz recalls of his father, "We competed at everything -- cards, basketball ... "

From the locker beside his, fellow starter Mike Hampton interrupts, "Going bald."

Smoltz laughs.

"Yeah, going bald. He beat me at everything that he could. He never let me win a game until I could. And then I never let him win a game."

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