Commentary

Clubhouse a quiet place without Smoltz

Originally Published: February 15, 2009
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The Ghosts of Cy Youngs Past still hang out at their same old lockers in the Atlanta Braves clubhouse. Bobby Cox still sees them, hears them, laughs when he looks at them.

The manager has had to get used to life without Tom Glavine. And then life without Greg Maddux. But now comes Cox's strangest spring training of them all.

A spring without John Smoltz.

The reality of life without Smoltz -- for the first time since 1987 -- is just setting in as the Braves of 2009 begin preparing for the rest of their lives. But the manager of the Braves still feels the presence of a man who is no longer there, a man now wearing the uniform of the Boston Red Sox. "It's just like the other ones when they left -- Maddux, Glav, now Smoltzie," said Cox, who hasn't managed a team without one of those men since he returned to this dugout 20 seasons ago. "You look at their locker, and you feel like they should be standing there."

The manager pauses, almost as if he's listening for a sound no one else could hear.

"And hearing their voice from this office," he went on. "You could always hear Smoltzie. He'd always have some kind of thing going on in the clubhouse. John was great in the clubhouse."

So now, as that clubhouse begins to adjust to moving on without him, the biggest adjustment of all is the silence. These men have been listening to John Smoltz's voice for so long, it's bizarre NOT hearing it. For as long as they can remember, he was practically the soundtrack of their lives. "I'm not used to it being this quiet around this clubhouse," laughed Chipper Jones, Smoltz's teammate since 1993. "He's usually the one piping in about Michigan State, or the Lions, or the Pistons, or the Red Wings. We got used to that."

[+] EnlargeJohn Smoltz
AP Photo/Steven SenneIt might take a while for people to get used to seeing John Smoltz in a Red Sox uniform instead of Braves gear.

But that's not all the Braves got used to, of course. Just so you have an idea how long Smoltz was a part of this franchise -- let alone the face of this franchise -- the primary starting rotation of the last Braves team without him on the roster looked like this: Zane Smith, Rick Mahler, Charlie Puleo, David Palmer and the man the Braves once traded for Smoltz 22 ancient years ago, Doyle Alexander. Sheez, in the realm of Braves history, that feels longer ago than the Peloponnesian War. So while the Braves have brought in three high-profile starting pitchers this winter -- Derek Lowe, Javy Vazquez and Japanese star Kenshin Kawakami -- replacing Smoltz will take more than that. This is a team trying to do more than merely get along without a man who won 210 games for them, saved another 154, arranged about a billion tee times and kept them continuously updated on every sporting event in the history of his home state of Michigan.

This is a team trying to get along without a man who was the human bridge that has connected every configuration of Braves pitching staffs since the Charlie Puleo Era.

Until this one.

So life goes on, if only because there is no other choice. Jeff Francoeur is the new director of the always-formidable Atlanta Braves Golf Tour. ("When he's done," quipped catcher Brian McCann, "Frenchy should be an event planner.") And Jones has moved down a few feet to his right -- into Smoltz's "primo locker."

The Chipmeister is also gearing up to assume Smoltz's longtime post as chief justice of the kangaroo court, for those keeping track of that important milestone in Braves jurisprudence.

But that, obviously, is the easy stuff. The hard part is trying to replace the most irreplaceable quality in sports: leadership. And Smoltz, said his now-former catcher, McCann, was "a true leader." "He's a guy who, when he speaks, you'd better listen," McCann said. "He's full of knowledge. The average person doesn't have his mindset. So then, when he passes that on to you, it makes you think a little bit more about how you go about your business and how you approach the game of baseball."

In most clubhouses, you understand, it doesn't work this way. In most clubhouses, you don't see everyday players looking to pitchers for vision, for insight, for leadership. But the Braves' clubhouse has always been different, in part because starting pitching has been the core of this team for so long -- and in part because Smoltz, Maddux and Glavine weren't just any old starting pitchers. So even though Glavine seems likely to return to this team, it will be in a supporting role. And that means, for the first time in about two decades, someone else besides a pitcher will have to do most of the talking.

"Now I'm going to have to be a little more vocal," Jones said. "I've always been kind of a lead-by-example guy. … But I think now, in the clubhouse and in meetings, it's going to be imperative that I'm the guy who's leading the win-one-for-the-Gipper speeches."

That doesn't mean, though, that Jones won't have Smoltz on his mind as he belts out those speeches. Those two played alongside each other since Jones' arrival in the majors in 1993 -- the longest tenure of any two teammates in the big leagues.

So no wonder Jones wasn't the happiest camper in Atlanta this winter when he learned the Braves had essentially been outbid by the Red Sox for Smoltz. And in the hours after that news broke, he let the planet know exactly how he felt.

"I just thought that we, as an organization, should have done everything we could to make sure that John Smoltz retired as a Brave," Jones said this weekend. "It was a frustrating winter up until the point where John was let go. And the one saving grace that we had as players, and that some of the fan base had out there, was that Smoltzie would be back in camp and he would be healthy and he'd be the same old Smoltzie, giving us a chance to win every fifth day. "Then, when that fell through, obviously there was a lot of frustration. And when you've been with a guy for 16, 17 years as I have, I vented. But ultimately, after sitting on it for a couple of days, I realized that the Braves have some pretty tight purse strings. And I understand what [general manager] Frank Wren was saying.

"We were willing to give Smoltzie as much as the Red Sox were to pitch. We just weren't ready to give him as much as the Red Sox NOT to pitch. And ultimately, that was Smoltzie's decision. So it's really hard for me to be mad or frustrated or upset with either party. Frank did what he thought was best for the organization. And John did what he thought was best for him."

[+] EnlargeBobby Cox and John Smoltz
AP Photo/Gregory SmithBobby Cox got used to having and hearing conversations with John Smoltz. Now, his Braves clubhouse is a lot quieter with Smoltz in Boston.

So in many ways, this was just your typical modern sports plot line. There was a time when it was common for a player like Smoltz to spend his whole career with one team. But that time isn't this time -- a time when baseball is more business than sport.

"It happens," McCann said. "It happens a lot -- in all sports. It just happened to Brett Favre. Didn't it?"

But just because it happens doesn't mean it isn't a monumental event when it happens to a team like this -- and the player roaring down the exit ramp is a player of the stature of John Smoltz.

Heck, even the pitchers who NEVER played with him find it surreal to be occupying a Braves clubhouse without Smoltz in it.

"I saw him on ESPN for the first time today before I came here, walking around in a Red Sox uniform," Lowe said. "It was definitely weird."

But this is no mere oddity on the giant landscape of sports. In one of the most stable franchises in sports, the departure of John Smoltz marks a true passing of the baton, from one Braves generation to the next. And there's something powerful about that thought.

"It had to happen sometime," Jones said. "You can't be on top forever. When you've had the kind of players we've had here for so long, eventually those guys get older and move on, and other people have to come in and step up their play and achieve success. And obviously, you can't replace a Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz with just anybody."

The Braves will try to replace Smoltz's innings with their three new veteran starters. And they will try to replace Smoltz's leadership with a blend of Jones' quiet philosophizing, Glavine's veteran wisdom and the impressive presence of young players like McCann.

But some things in life can't ever be replaced. And all of these men are aware of it.

"He's been the face of this organization for a long time," McCann said. "And he's a close friend of mine. So we definitely miss him around here. And we always will."

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.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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