05 June 2008

John Smoltz

"It wouldn't surprise me if he came back as a left-handed pitcher." --Fredi Gonzales on John Smoltz's 2008 season-ending surgery

Every generation has its heroes and villians, its legends and myths.  For baseball fans of the last twenty years, it would be difficult not to include John Smoltz on a list of heroes (unless, of course, you couldn't stand the Braves, in which case he probably makes your villians list).  Forget the stats (only pitcher with 200 wins and 150 saves, 3000 strikeouts, most post-season wins ever, 1996 Cy Young award winner, etc.).  Unless someone exposes something about the guy that hasn't surfaced in his lengthy career to cast a dark shadow over him (which can happen; ask Roger Clemens), it's a foregone conclusion that they'll cover up some wall space in Cooperstown with a John Smoltz plaque in a few years.

On the field, Smoltz has always been a team leader, and in this day of prima donna athletes, it has always been refreshing to hear and read his comments about his teammates (protecting those who were struggling, encouraging young players) and to see a guy who was willing to say, "I can't be a starter anymore, but I can help from the bullpen."  Then, when the Braves' starting rotation was dismal, it was Smoltz who again spoke up and said, "I can be more help to this team as a starter, and I know I can handle it now."  This year, when he went on the disabled list, he again spoke up, recognizing that his ability to help the team as a starter was diminished, but hoped he could help from the bullpen.  Unfortunately, that has not worked out and he is out for the season with his fourth career arm surgery.

Off the field, Smoltz has long been recognized for his humanitarian work; he probably has more Home Depot Humanitarian awards than he has MLB awards.  Simply put, this is a guy who has demonstrated time and again a willingness to work hard, to put the team first, and to offer a helping hand when he could.  Maybe that's what caused all the inflammation that is now plaguing him.  In any event, much like Cal Ripken, Jr.'s consecutive games played streak, John Smoltz has been a model of athlete we may not see again.

Will John Smoltz return to baseball next year?  If he does, will it be as a starter or closer?  We won't know for some time yet, and I for one sincerely hope that he is able to return.  If, however, his playing days are finished, one hopes that at least one of the thirty ballclubs is smart enough to recruit him as a pitching or bullpen coach.  Don't forget: not only does he know a thing or two about starting and closing, but he knows how to hit and he knows his way around the bases, too, having been called on from time to time to pinch hit and pinch run.  These are little things that American League pitchers aren't required to know, but a National League staff can benefit greatly from honing.  The bottom line: John Smoltz has given baseball quite a lot of himself over twenty years, and it would be a shame for that not to continue next year.

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