From the Sidelines: Smoltz files for divorce from Braves

Published 10:38 pm Friday, January 9, 2009

John Smoltz made his major league debut on July 23, 1988. I was six years old. He epically dueled Minnesota’s Jack Morris in game seven of the World Series on October 27,1991. I was nine. He helped the Atlanta Braves to a World Series title in 1995. I was 13. Then, after 21 seasons in Atlanta, he agreed to terms with the Boston Red Sox on January 9, 2009. I was 26.

That, as near as I can figure, is the end of my childlike idealism as it pertains to the world of sports.

Watching the progression of events throughout the past week has been like witnessing Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn rip one another in The Break Up. There is no background music to soften the blow. It feels a little too real. And now you’re just left with a nauseating awkwardness in the pit of your stomach.

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The relationship between Smoltz and the Braves has been the model of loyalty and faithfulness. In the world of professional sports the divorce rate between players and franchises rattles off at nearly a 100 percent clip. But Smoltz and the Braves were proof that some measure of decency still remained within the big business of baseball.

Each side was the model of loyalty. Smoltz continually passed up overtures from teams such as the New York Yankees, who likely would have paid him more money than Atlanta. Conversely, the Braves continued to put faith in the veteran hurler as he battled through arm injuries that should have ended his career.

The marriage was healthy. It was happy. It was right.

As long as I have known baseball, John Smoltz has been an Atlanta Brave. Many have come and nearly all have gone. But John Smoltz has remained.

I watched for years as the fabled Big Three made the Braves a mainstay in October. Fred McGriff, David Justice, Terry Pendleton, Ron Gant and a host of others arrived and departed. But the Big Three kept Atlanta in contention.

Then came the winter of 2002. The unthinkable happened. Tom Glavine signed with the New York Mets, leaving the Braves after more than a decade. It stung. It stung pretty badly. But it was OK. We still had Greg Maddux and John Smoltz.

Then, one year later, Maddux departed Atlanta after 11 seasons. That didn’t feel good. But it was alright. He wasn’t a lifer. We’d gotten him from the Cubs anyway. Besides, we still had John Smoltz.

Now, five years later, John Schuerholz has stepped back as general manager and handed the reigns of the organization over to Frank Wren. That decision has proven frustrating as Wren has taunted Braves fans all winter by failing to land players such as Rafael Furcal, Jake Peavy and A.J. Burnett. But again, it was OK. That’s right, because we still had John Smoltz.

Then the news broke early this week that Braves fans no longer had their favorite organizational cornerstone on which to rely. It was shocking. It was frustrating. It was disgusting.

But how did it happen? How did Wren manage to lose a player who had repeatedly stated that he wanted to pitch nowhere other than Atlanta?

The answer is simple. He insulted him.

Smoltz pulled down more than $14 million last season. The injury-plagued season was the final of his existing contract with the Braves.

As a free agent this winter, he did not seek big-time dollars. For once, money had little to do with the equation.

Rather, Smoltz sought a vote of confidence. He did what John Smoltz always does when he fought to rehab his surgically repaired shoulder in order to take the mound again in 2009.

As he did, Atlanta waited.

The Braves watched him throw. The consensus was that he looked great.

But again, Atlanta waited.

Finally, Atlanta acted. With more money to throw around than the organization has had in years, Atlanta offered Smoltz a paltry $2 million base salary for one year and loaded the deal with incentives that would have pushed it $8 million. In order for Smoltz to get the maximum amount of money from Atlanta, he would have been required to pitch 200 innings or make 30 starts, a virtual impossibility for a 42-year-old pitcher with 21 seasons of wear and tear on a surgically-repaired arm. Moreover, if Smoltz were to pitch anything shy of the allotted 200 innings, he would have been paid no bonus.

On the other hand, the Red Sox gave Smoltz the benefit of the doubt the Braves refused. They agreed to pay him a $5 million base salary which includes incentives that could push the salary to $10 million. The incentives laid on the table by the Red Sox include $125,000 the first day he is on the team’s active roster, $500,000 for being on the active roster the final day of the regular season and up to $4.375 million for the number of days he is on the major league roster during the season.

Now that is a showing of faith.

Don’t misunderstand here. John’s decision to bolt Atlanta had little to do with the difference in pay. It had everything to do with the fact that an organization to which he had committed the entirety of his career failed to commit to him at a time when he needed it the most.

That is a textbook way to screw up a good thing. And that is exactly what Frank Wren has done. After trading the best all-around first baseman in the game in Mark Teixeira for Casey Kotchman and a mid-level prospect, Wren was left standing in the rain on three straight pursuits. Braves fans were embarrassed and flustered, but that was the extent of it. Now, he has managed to alienate the most popular and successful athlete in the history of the city of Atlanta. Braves fans are nothing short of outraged.

So John Smoltz will not don a Braves hat next season. And baseball will have a little less meaning in Atlanta. And a generation of Braves fans has been left at the dining room table to awkwardly watch the unraveling of baseball’s greatest marriage.