Thursday, January 8, 2009
A Sign of the Impending Apocalypse (Almost)
The word is that John Smoltz is about to sign a one year contract with the Boston Red Sox.
I believe it was 1987 when the Atlanta Braves, then a sorry mess of a team, traded the only decent pitcher they had, Doyle Alexander, for a Detroit Tigers Class A pitcher that pretty no one outside of baseball insiders had ever heard of, a young man named John Smoltz. The trade worked out pretty well in the short term for the Tigers, as Alexander went 9-0 with a 1.53 ERA down the stretch to help Detroit win their division.
Smoltz went on to a 21-year career with the Braves during which he compiled statistics and a reputation that will almost surely land him in the Hall of Fame, probably on the first ballot after he becomes eligible. He has a record of 210 wins and 147 losses, most of which he earned as a starting pitcher. He also toiled for three years as the Braves' closer, during which time he compiled 154 saves. Along the way he also earned a deserved reputation as one of the greatest post-season pitchers of all time; his playoff and World Series record is 15 wins, 4 losses, and 4 saves with a 2.65 ERA.
I will never forget his tremendous battle with Jack Morris in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, a game in which Smoltz left the game in the bottom of the eighth inning with the score tied 0-0 but which the Braves eventually lost 1-0 in ten innings with the veteran Morris pitching a complete game.
When Smoltz does enter the Hall of Fame he will go in as an Atlanta Brave. All Braves fans should appreciate what Smoltz has brought to the team in terms of effort, performance, character, and professionalism.
Now, though, he has reportedly agreed to sign with the Red Sox and the accusations will fly. Some will accuse Braves General Manager Frank Wren with not doing enough to keep such an icon and fan favorite in the fold. Others will accuse Smoltz of putting a few more dollars (OK, a few million more dollars) ahead of loyalty to the team that has, after all, paid him millions and millions of dollars over the past twenty years and that does, after all, play in the city that he has made his home and that he says will continue to be his home.
Here is the hard truth as seen by this hard-core fan of the Braves ever since they moved to Atlanta in 1966: the team will be better off without Smotlz. Please understand: it breaks my heart to say that because Smoltz is far and away my favorite Braves player from the past twenty years. He is an outstanding professional baseball player and appears to be a good human being and I really hate to see him go.
But the fact is that the Braves are in a downswing now after a decade and a half of winning division titles, the occasional league championship, and that one cherished 1995 World Series title. They could not, I believe, guarantee a roster spot and a few million dollars to a pitcher, iconic though he is, who may or may not be able to pitch next year (I wouldn't bet against him) and who, if he does pitch, may not be able to do much more than provide high-priced middle relief (I wouldn't bet on getting much more than that out of him).
I realize that his presence and example could help make young pitchers better but the fact is that the Braves need to go young with their pitching staff and just pay the price of a couple of tough years. That's what they did in the late 1980s and early 1990s with some young guys named Glavine, Avery, and--now who was that other guy?--oh yeah, Smoltz. And they provided the core of staff that, with the later addition of Greg Maddux, did amazing things first in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and then Turner Field.
And here's another thing that I hate to say, given that I like Smoltz so much: if he doesn't want to be in Atlanta then he needs to leave. I realize that he has his reasons; I realize that he may feel like he was not given enough consideration by the Braves in this round of contract negotations and he may feel like he wants to go out with a winner--I really don't know since I can't read his mind. Still, he would have gotten a good contract with Atlanta--some two million guaranteed with incentives that could bring the total value to over ten million, I understand--and I must tell you that I would gladly sign a one-year contract with the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald on such terms right now.
For what it's worth, we pastors generally play without a contract.
So, one must conclude that for whatever reasons Smoltz is more than willing to leave the Braves and if that's the case then they need to let him go. And I frankly can't blame him for going if he has examined the situation and believes, as I do, that the Braves are at least three years away from contending again, and that's if they cut out their annoying recent practice of trading away too many promising young players for rent-a-players that don't make that much of a difference anyway, and there's little or no chance that he'll still be playing when the turnaround comes.
So Braves fans may feel like it is a sign of the impending apocalypse that John Smoltz is leaving to play for the Boston Red Sox, but it's not.
If he were leaving to play for the Evil Empire that is the New York Yankees, it would be.
And therein lies the silver lining: maybe Smoltz will at least do civilized society the favor of assuring that the Yankees don't win the American League Eastern Division in 2009.
As for me, I'm pulling for the Tampa Bay Rays to repeat and for both the Yanks and the Sox to stay home.
Also as for me--Go Braves! And I hope they put a bunch of hungry 21-year-old pitchers out there on the mound.