ATLANTA — John Smoltz returned to Atlanta on Wednesday to make it clear he’ll always cherish the city that has been his home since 1988.
“Twenty-two years is a long time and I don’t think you ever take it for granted and I never will,” he said.
But the pitcher said Braves management took him for granted this offseason, and that helped push him to accept a $5.5 million, one-year contract from the Boston Red Sox as he recovers from major shoulder surgery.
“They had a plan,” Smoltz said of the Red Sox, “and the plan here was, ‘We just always assumed he wouldn’t leave.’”
The 41-year-old Smoltz was back in Atlanta one day after his first news conference in Boston. He said the offers between the Braves and Red Sox were “not even close” and said the performance bonuses that pushed the potential value of Atlanta’s offer close to $10 million “were impossible” to reach.
“In all my greatest accomplishments, I couldn’t have reached what they were talking about,” he said. “It sounds good. The numbers sound good. It sounds like, ‘Oh, they’re close. Why would he leave?’”
Smoltz said “we wouldn’t be having this discussion” if the Braves’ offer had been close to Boston’s.
“I have no ill feelings toward anybody or harbor any bitterness,” he said. “I want the Braves to go to the World Series and certainly now I want them to play against the Boston Red Sox and then let fate take care of the rest after that.”
The Braves finished far out of playoff contention last season, when they lost 90 games and came in fourth in the NL East.
This winter, general manager Frank Wren has had to rebuild Atlanta’s rotation.
Tim Hudson is expected to miss at least the first half of the 2009 season after elbow ligament replacement surgery. Tom Glavine remains unsigned as he recovers from surgery to repair a torn tendon in his left elbow. Mike Hampton signed with Houston. And now Smoltz is with Boston.
Wren on Tuesday reached a preliminary agreement on a $60 million, four-year contract with right-hander Derek Lowe and finalized a deal with Japanese all-star pitcher Kenshin Kawakami. Wren traded for Javier Vazquez earlier in the offseason.
Wren has been looking for starting pitchers he can count on from the start of the season. Boston, meanwhile, looked at Smoltz as a pitcher it can bring along slowly with hopes he’ll be a factor in the postseason. Boston’s approach quickly won over Smoltz.
“If you’re looking at the World Series, if you’re looking at the upside of what can potentially happen, my gosh!” Smoltz said.
“If people asked me to pitch 220 innings or 30 starts, certainly I would never even think about signing John Smoltz because certainly the odds way outweigh the reward. But it was never approached to me that way from Boston’s standpoint. They saw the value of everything. They were going to be able to slow me down, get me at my strength and be able to deliver something — that they’re trying to get to a World Series.”
Smoltz said he’s motivated in his rehabilitation by the goal of returning to the playoffs and World Series.
“It’s what I want,” he said. “It’s what I love. It’s what, if you gave me that opportunity and I never pitched a regular-season game and that’s all I did, that is what it’s about.”
Smoltz was generally upbeat as he spoke with Atlanta-based reporters in the offices of his agent, Lonnie Cooper. The right-hander emphasized his intent to remain part of the Atlanta community.
“I want to say I’ve loved every second, every minute,” Smoltz said. “I’m not dying. I’m not leaving. I’m just playing for a different team.
“I’m going to live here for the rest of my life and ... my desire to serve this community and my desire to be a part of the Atlanta Braves’ legacy forever will never change.”
Smoltz was traded from Detroit to the Braves in 1987 and made his Atlanta debut in 1988. He became the only pitcher in history with 200 wins and 150 saves, and one of only 16 with 3,000 strikeouts.
Smoltz, 210-147 in his career, has a long history of winning despite arm problems but he couldn’t pitch through last year’s shoulder troubles. He appeared in only six games, going 3-2 with a 2.57 ERA.
After the season, Wren was clear about putting together a new staff without counting on Smoltz and Glavine.
“We have to fill the spots in our rotation without regard for them,” the GM said.
“We can’t expect them to be in the top of our rotation and say, OK, we’re set,” Wren said in October. “They have to be add-ons. ... We can’t be in a position where we’re counting on those guys and they can’t perform.”
Smoltz said Wren delivered the same message to him.
“Nothing was owed to me,” Smoltz said. “But I don’t know if I’m just supposed to sit and wait and just hope that the call comes and what if the call doesn’t come?”
Smoltz paused when asked if CEO Terry McGuirk or team president John Schuerholz have called to offer him good luck in Boston.
“Not yet,” he said. “I know they’ve got a job to do. Time will heal itself.”