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Smoltz likely gone for good -- until Cooperstown

This was the news conference John Smoltz never wanted to attend. This was the news he never wanted to break.

When we spoke recently about his health and future, Smoltz talked like a man who was worn out by the pain -- but also like a man who was trying to convince himself there was some way to pitch through the agony for four more months.

For every optimistic word, for every hopeful sentence that came out of his mouth, it seemed to be followed by another that told you how John Smoltz was really feeling.

"Obviously, if I had two or three years left on my contract [instead of four months], I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now," he said at one point, all but saying flat-out he'd be headed for the office of the nearest orthopedic surgeon soon after we spoke.

"I'm not going to lie," he said at another point. "I'm getting tired of pitching in pain. And if it continues, there's not going to be much left for me."

When I brought up the possibility of making a start or three in the postseason, he smiled and said: "That would take a miracle."

He spoke several times about retirement, what it would take to drive him to retirement and even what he planned to do after that retirement (hit golf balls, do some coaching, take a shot at the broadcasting business).

But he wasn't ready to do any of that yet. He made that clear. He wanted one more year. He wanted to do something -- anything -- to help a Braves team he had great hopes for. He was willing to go back to the bullpen, improvise his best Dan Quisenberry delivery imitation, pitch even a few innings a week just to make some kind of impact.

Except that wasn't possible. His shoulder kept trying to tell him that. But John Smoltz wouldn't listen -- until Monday, when he couldn't protect a ninth-inning lead in his home park and could barely raise his arm afterward.

So he's heading off to visit that orthopedic surgeon. And after that? Who knows? But it's very possible we might never see him on a pitcher's mound again.

This wasn't the final chapter he wanted to write for himself. But just because he didn't like the ending doesn't mean he didn't write a heck of a story -- a story that's going to lead him right to Cooperstown, N.Y., on a Sunday afternoon in the not-too-distant future.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.