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Coming full circle: From worst to first, Glavine and Smoltz have seen it all

POSTED: September 17, 2008 5:01 a.m.
By John Raoux/The Associated Press

These are 2008 photos showing Atlanta Braves baseball players Tom Glavine, left, and John Smoltz. The Atlanta Braves were one of baseball's worst teams at the start of their careers, and now - as they face the possibility of having thrown the final pitches of what will likely be Hall of Fame careers - they are mired in another miserable season.

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ATLANTA

— For Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, this season has surely rekindled memories of their early days with the Atlanta Braves.

Back in the late 1980s, they were just coming up with one of baseball’s worst teams.

Now, they’ve come full circle.

As Glavine and Smoltz wind down their likely Hall of Fame careers — and there’s a chance both have already thrown their final pitches — they can only watch as the Braves find themselves mired near the bottom of the standings, just playing out the season while other teams battle for division titles and playoff spots.

"It hasn’t been a lot of fun for anybody," said Glavine, standing at his locker and fiddling with a nasty, two-inch scar running along the inside of his left elbow. "It’s hard to watch some nights."

Especially when you’ve been such a big part of an organization that was so used to winning.

Glavine and Smoltz were there at the beginning, when the Braves went from worst to first — and all the way to Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. Along the way, they’ve been serenaded with the monotonous drone of the tomahawk chop, helped Atlanta’s pitching staff put a stranglehold on the Cy Young award, led a team that won a record 14 straight division titles, and, most memorably, sprayed champagne when this city captured its only major sports championship.

Those giddy days seem like a lifetime ago.

Glavine is 42 and recovering from elbow surgery. Smoltz is 41 and rehabbing from a major shoulder operation. Neither envisioned their careers ending like this, both watching from the sideline while a bunch of anonymous youngsters serve up batting-practice pitches, throw to the wrong base and swing at balls a foot off the plate.

"This is nothing like any other year, period," Smoltz said. "There’s nothing to describe or explain it. You really can’t. If this is the penance of 14 straight years of winning, I guess we were due it."

Not that they expected it.

Glavine, who left the Braves for a five-year exile with the hated New York Mets, returned this season like a prodigal son, all the bitterness and hatred from his contract dispute a long-faded memory. Smoltz had won 44 games over the previous three seasons after an uncharted starter-to-closer-and-back-to-starter transition.

Together, they hoped to lead Atlanta back to the playoffs, to restart the nearly generation-long streak of division titles that ended in 2006.

"Whenever somebody decides it’s going to be their last year, they want it to be a great year personally and they want to win a world championship," Glavine said. "Nothing could be better. But that’s usually not the case."

Is this it for the classy left-hander?

Glavine hasn’t given up on pitching again in 2009, but concedes there’s no template for a potential comeback. This is his first serious injury, so he has no idea how his arm will respond to the rehab process. And he’s not some kid trying to prove himself; he’s a 305-game winner who’ll turn 43 next spring.

"Now that the year’s gone the way that it has, on the one hand you say, ‘Well, you’re 42 years old, your body’s starting to break down a little bit, maybe it’s time to go home,’" Glavine said. "On the other hand you say, ‘Gee, this isn’t the way I wanted to go out.’"

While Glavine approaches the future with a sense of realism, Smoltz is going at it will full-bore defiance. He intends to pitch again unless his oft-injured body absolutely refuses to go along with the plan.

"I’ve been written off before and I’m sure this is the time when everyone says, ‘Finally! This is the end,’" he said with the chuckle. "But I certainly don’t think that.

"I’ve never bought into what everybody else says I can’t do."

With Smoltz and Glavine laid up — not to mention Tim Hudson, Rafael Soriano and Peter Moylan, three other key pitchers sidelined with season-ending injuries — the Braves have struggled through their worst season in 18 years.

Atlanta matched its longest winning streak since the All-Star break with a three-game sweep of fading Colorado — whoopee! — but still went into the weekend 18 games behind the NL East-leading Mets.

"Bad, bad baseball," moaned third baseman Chipper Jones, one of the few bright spots. "A lot of mental mistakes. Forgetting outs. Forgetting counts. It’s everybody."

Start with the pitching. It’s been pathetic over the last two months, a most striking change from the 1990s when the Braves dominated with a "next stop, Cooperstown" rotation that also included four-time Cy Young winner Greg Maddux.

Of course, it’s not too surprising the ERA shot up dramatically after the All-Star game.

Sixty percent of the projected rotation — Smoltz, Glavine and Tim Hudson — has been to the operating room (surely the Braves got some sort of group discount). Another starter, Mike Hampton, missed the last two seasons and more than half this year with various injuries before finally returning to the rotation, much too late to help.

Soriano, the projected closer, had only three saves between repeated trips to the disabled list; he’s now done for the year. Moylan, the team’s top setup reliever a year ago, is recovering from reconstructive surgery on his right elbow. Mike Gonzalez missed the first 2« months of the season coming back from the same operation.

Rookie Jair Jurrjens, who was leading the team with 13 wins, is a building block for the future. But youngsters such as Charlie Morton (4-6, 6.32) and Jo-Jo Reyes (3-10, 5.26 going into a scheduled start Saturday) have failed to show the sort of promise that Glavine and Smoltz displayed on those awful Braves teams of the late 1980s, at least providing a glimmer of hope.

"We’ve got some young guys who’ve got to prove they belong up here and can stay up here," said longtime manager Bobby Cox.

Hardly a glowing endorsement.

But Atlanta’s problems extend beyond the pitching staff.

Right fielder Jeff Francoeur, once projected as baseball’s next big star, looks lost at the plate. He bulked up over the winter, hoping to improve his power numbers, but that seems to have hurt his flexibility. Plus, he shows scant signs of adjusting to pitchers who’ve figured out his free-swinging ways. Frenchy has spent much of the season struggling to stay above the Mendoza Line.

The rest of the outfield is even more of a mess. Rookies Gregor Blanco and Josh Anderson have gotten extensive playing time. Another rookie, Brandon Jones, is finishing out the season in left. The Braves will go into the offseason in desperate need of a power-hitting outfielder and a true leadoff man.

What will the winter bring?

Since going through a series of corporate ownership shifts, the Braves have abandoned the free-spending ways of former boss Ted Turner. While Atlanta still has one of baseball’s higher payrolls, general manager Frank Wren must operate under stricter spending limits mandated from higher up.

Then again, there could be plenty of cash to throw around. Hampton’s huge contract (he made nearly $16 million this season) is coming to an end. The Braves dealt Mark Teixeira ($12.5 million) and Mark Kotsay ($7 million) when it became apparent they weren’t a playoff contender. Smoltz ($14 million) and Glavine ($8 million) would likely have to pitch for much less money next season, even if they recover from their injuries.

With that in mind, Glavine said the future is infinitely more promising now than it was in 1990, when the Braves finished last in the NL West at 65-97.

The following year, they began their unprecedented streak of playoff appearances.

"People tend to make those comparisons between now and 1990," Glavine said.

"But I wouldn’t for a second look at the 1990 team ... and think that team had a better chance of winning than this team does. No way. It’s not even close. This team’s got much more talent, and much more established talent than that team in 1990."

The 67-year-old Cox, who’s already signed to return in 2009, is eager to get started on another rebuilding job.

"We’re going to pursue free agents and trades, anything we can do to improve this club," the manager said.

"We’ve got some big meetings coming up the first week of October. We’ll be going through a lot of stuff."

Ahh, the first week of October.

Remember when the Braves used to always be playing at that time of year?

Cox sure does.

"Even the last two years, we didn’t make the playoffs but it came down to the last week or so," the manager said. "This has not been good."



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