Early yesterday, John Smoltz agreed to a deal with the St. Louis Cardinals, giving the 42-year old former Cy Young award winner a chance to show he isn’t finished yet.
Tony La Russa's club is hoping he can still contribute down the stretch in a pennant race for the current NL Central leaders.
Perhaps, the interest from teams around the league, even though they saw him struggle in Boston where he was 2-5 with an 8.33 ERA in eight starts, was because they believe he can come around after getting some more innings.
Maybe the Cardinals feel that his Boston starts were more like a spring training exercise, to work out the kinks after missing most of the 2008 season due to injury.
Smoltz missed most of 2009, and when he came back to a foreign league with different strike zones and hitters, he struggled. Those would at least be the logical, positive excuses that would help justify the signing.
Perhaps, getting him back into the National League where he’s likely to be more comfortable, can get Smoltz back to resembling the future Hall of Famer everyone had admired and respected over the last 20 seasons.
Smoltz showed in Boston that he still had some velocity, but he got himself into so much trouble with a lack of control, and gave up too many big innings to opposing teams in most of his starts. It’s possible that his confidence was completely shattered, in part due to the injury, and also because of the enormous pressure and expectations placed on himself.
With having the ultimate reality check of being told a team didn’t want him anymore and getting released, he’s realized the humility of it all, and yet still wants to continue. Things can’t get any worse, or can they?
For a star athlete at the level of Smoltz’s caliber, the hardest thing for many of them to do is realize when it really is over. Imagine being the best of the best at your craft since a child, and garnering all the personal awards, recognitions, titles, and then all of a sudden your body quits on you. It’s a cruel torture that father time plays.
However, the past glory and all those years still linger, and the brain tells you that you can still get people out and be close to what you were a mere three seasons ago.
We see this in all sports where stars linger on long after their best days are gone; and unfortunately, those times are some of the lasting memories we have of them which somewhat taints their overall performance. It’s almost like an asterisk should be put on those last seasons for players that just say “age,” under all the stats that in no way resemble any of their other years.
For every John Elway riding off in the sunset with back to back Super Bowl's where we never saw him in weakened shadow of his former self, there’s players like Moses Malone, Joe Namath, Brett Favre, and Steve Carlton who think they can keep going because they were so good in their prime, that there is a belief that even if they have dropped a level, they’re NOW on par with everyone else, the mere mortals of the sport.
In Steve Carlton’s case, there was nothing more difficult than watching the four-time Cy Young award winner with over 4,100 strikeouts play for five different teams in his final two seasons. Lefty’s great moments in baseball history will always stand out and will always be considered one of the best ever. But those seasons in 1986 and 1987, where he got beat down by everyone, until it finally sunk in his head early in 1988 that he can’t get people out, are a lasting memory.
Hopefully, John Smoltz can gain his confidence back, throw some strikes and help the Cardinals out.
The last image we have of him right now is getting thrashed in Yankee Stadium, while leading, in a high intensity rivalry game. Seeing him stand alone on that mound before the 5th inning came to a close, waiting to hand the ball off to the manager as the Red Sox made the pitching change, we could almost read his mind as he had all his emotions come together at once.
So, evidently, he thinks he can pitch again.
We all would like to hope there is a happy ending to this story because of what a great competitor and class player he’s been throughout his career. A fairy tale end would be contributing in the Cardinals quest for another Championship, pitching six solid innings in spot starts, and helping get tough right-handers out in a critical bullpen moments.
Somehow, as history shows us with players like Smoltz in that category of injured and aged, the fairy tale ending never quite works out. He’s been given the opportunities because of his past, his name, and selling his desire to prospective teams. If it doesn’t work out in St. Louis, that may be it, even if he still wants to play.