Smoltz faces season-ending surgery
Braves veteran righty says he 'can't compete against my body'
ATLANTA -- Late Sunday night, a solemn John Smoltz sat beside the fire pit located outside his suburban Atlanta home. As he meditated and prayed for approximately 45 minutes, he was seeking answers and a resolution.
"I just needed to know what I was supposed to do," Smoltz said. "It was one of the first times in a long time that I was able to be so quiet and so still for that long."
While battling regular right shoulder discomfort over the course of the past year, Smoltz has masked his frustration with a good poker face and the ability to continue pitching at a high level. When this pain became unbearable a month ago, the determined 41-year-old pitcher wasn't willing to just sit around and wait for a medical miracle.
Instead, by altering his delivery and role, Smoltz gave himself at least one more chance to enjoy his passion to pitch. But after just one appearance back in the Braves' bullpen, he finds himself destined for a date with noted surgeon Dr. James Andrews and dealing with the reality that his illustrious career might be complete.
During a press conference at Turner Field on Wednesday morning, the Braves announced that Smoltz will visit Andrews on Tuesday. At that time, the veteran hurler expects to undergo season-ending shoulder surgery and learn more about the possibility of him pitching again.
"This is a sad day in a lot of ways, because we don't know the outcome of the surgery," Braves general manager Frank Wren said. "We don't know if the outcome of that surgery will allow him to pitch and maybe come back. Or we don't know if it will just allow him to go on with his life."
After undergoing his fourth elbow surgery at the end of the 2003 season, Smoltz indicated he'd retire if he was forced to undergo another surgical procedure. But his competitive desire, which has at times seemed to be stubbornness, isn't allowing him to immediately close the door on his remarkable career.
"As a professional athlete, you always want to go the way that you want to go," Smoltz said. "I'm not there yet."
Being a realist and not knowing what Andrews will find next week, Smoltz realizes retirement is a strong possibility. But he also knows he's been down this path before.
During Spring Training in 2000, when he learned that he needed Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery, Smoltz thought his career was complete. His thought was, "Who wants a 34-year-old pitcher coming back from Tommy John surgery?" His decision to keep pitching was aided by a surprise phone call from Tommy John, who explained he'd undergone this surgery at the same age and then spent another decade in the Majors.
|"I would have never predicted the direction that my career has taken, and I never would have predicted I'd have been here 21 years."|
|-- John Smoltz|
Then after the 2003 season, when he had a hole in his right elbow tendon, he figured he may never throw another pitch. This was a rare surgical procedure. One year later, he enjoyed another strong season in the closer's role. Two years later, he was again given a chance to enjoy a three-year stretch during which he was one of the National League's top starting pitchers.
All of this has proven that it's never wise to say never when speaking about Smoltz.
"I would have never predicted the direction that my career has taken, and I never would have predicted I'd have been here 21 years," said Smoltz, who plans to golf and coach high school basketball during his retirement life. "So I definitely can't predict the next two or three years. When I get down to [retirement], it will be a pretty easy decision."
When Smoltz posted a 0.78 ERA and recorded 31 strikeouts in his first four starts this season, it was easy to assume that he'd continue to successfully pitch through the discomfort like he did during his final 20 starts last year.
"I thought John was throwing as well as I'd ever seen him," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "But those in-between days were rough, and you can only tolerate so much pain. He's always pitched with pain and always been the best competitor in the world."
When Smoltz allowed five earned runs against the Phillies in his final regular-season start last year, he was physically miserable. He felt the same way on April 27, and then two days later, Andrews diagnosed that the shoulder discomfort was a product of inflammation around the rotator cuff and biceps tendon.
|"He's always pitched with pain and always been the best competitor in the world."|
|-- Bobby Cox|
The fact that he allowed two runs and blew the save opportunity didn't lead to this decision to have surgery. Instead, it was the immense discomfort he felt about an hour after throwing his last pitch.
As he drove home late Monday night, Smoltz felt miserable and continued to feel that way throughout a portion of Tuesday afternoon. But about an hour before Tuesday night's game, the veteran hurler met with Cox, Wren and members of the team's medical staff to tell them that he felt he needed to have surgery.
"Yesterday was an answered prayer," Smoltz said. "I felt so relieved. I can't compete against my body anymore. The frustration for me has been to be in limbo."
Even with this decision to undergo surgery, Smoltz still faces plenty of doubts. If there's one certainty, it seems to be that he likely wouldn't pitch anywhere outside of Atlanta. But at the same time, there are many doubts about whether he could return -- even to simply serve as a reliever -- from this kind of surgery.
"I won't come back just to say I came back," Smoltz said. "I'll come back because I know I can help the team. I don't have to throw another pitch in my life to be happy. I'm content with this."
Although he feels he's often walked in the shadows of Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, Smoltz has had his own Hall of Fame-caliber career. No other pitcher has recorded 200 wins with at least 150 saves, and he owns Major League Baseball's all-time postseason records for wins (15) and strikeouts (194).
"I've pulled off a lot of miracles," Smoltz said. "I'm a blessed man and probably shouldn't have played this long."
If there isn't another miracle in the tank and retirement becomes the only option, Smoltz says he'll still have the same peace that he found Tuesday, when he determined he'd undergo another surgery with the intent of at least attempting to pitch again.
"There's not one remorseful, sad or bitter bone in my body," Smoltz said.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.