Spring Training Preview – BRAVES Throwbacks Veteran Stars Offer Link To Past Success And Hope For The Future February 23, 2003 | By Ryan Clark, Sentinel Staff Writer
LAKE BUENA VISTA — The loud baritone of John Smoltz echoed off the walls of the Atlanta Braves’ clubhouse at Disney’s Wide World of Sports, bringing smiles to the faces of rookies and veterans alike.
“Take me out to the ballgame,” Smoltz sang, laughing between verses. “Take me out to the crowd . . .” Some turned away, trying not to acknowledge his antics. Others tried to harmonize. All took notice.
“Man, I couldn’t sing before, when I had to,” Smoltz said. “I choked. Now when I’m in the clubhouse, I’m fine.”
Just hours before, Smoltz was chosen by club officials to sing the song for a new commercial, splicing his version in with those done by celebrities such as Elton John, Usher and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
In the past 15 years, Smoltz has been the only constant on an ever-changing Atlanta team, but he never has been the Braves’ unifying voice. That title belonged to left-hander Tom Glavine, and with his off- season departure to the New York Mets, someone must take the lead. Players say Smoltz looks to be the man.
“With Glavine gone, it’s got to be Smoltzie,” catcher Javy Lopez said. “He’s the natural. That’s just the way it is.”
But Smoltz will tell you he isn’t the lone leader. He will say there are many, and he will talk about superstars such as Chipper Jones. He will talk about his manager, Bobby Cox. He will talk about fellow veteran Greg Maddux.
Smoltz is the ultimate throwback player. He defers credit, he accepts his role while remaining loyal to the team and he continues to dominate at the highest level. Yet he never garnered the kind of attention bestowed on the stars surrounding him, such as Maddux, Glavine or even Steve Avery and Kevin Millwood.
Teammates can look at his proven track record. It was Smoltz who battled Jack Morris in the epic Game 7 of the 1991 World Series against the Minnesota Twins. One year later, Smoltz earned National League Championship Series MVP honors and helped his team to its second consecutive World Series. In 1996, he won 24 games and the NL Cy Young Award. Last season, in his first full year as a closer, Smoltz set the NL single-season record with 55 saves.
On a team searching to re-invent itself again, he remains the anchor.
“When a team continually changes, you do have many leaders,” Smoltz said. “I know I’m one of a lot of guys who lead, and I’m sure it will take on a new importance this year.”
Last season, the Braves won the division title for the 11th consecutive time, won the most games in the NL (101) and finished 19 games in front of second-place Montreal. They won more road games than any other NL squad, and — as usual — pitching carried Atlanta into the postseason. The Braves allowed 565 runs, 51 fewer than the next-best team in the league.
But many of the faces that helped propel the team to those heights are gone. Five pitchers left through free agency, while another three were traded. A reliever, a first baseman and three new starting pitchers were brought in. The starters — Mike Hampton (from Colorado via Florida), Russ Ortiz (San Francisco) and Paul Byrd (Kansas City) — all are eager to learn from Atlanta pitching coach Leo Mazzone.
“You can tell these new guys are happy to be here, all of them,” Smoltz said. “I know what they’re feeling. There’s just something about putting on this uniform. Have you seen Byrd? He looks like he got a `get out of jail free’ pass.”
Last season, the Braves’ bullpen was spectacular, putting up a 30-14 record and a 2.60 ERA. Mike Remlinger, Tim Spooneybarger, Chris Hammond and Kerry Ligtenberg combined for 262 innings and 18 victories, but each is gone. They’ve been replaced by Roberto Hernandez from Kansas City, Ray King from Milwaukee and holdovers Darren Holmes and Kevin Gryboski.
There could be a revamped starting lineup, too. Or at least a new-look lineup. Lopez has lost 20 pounds. All-star Andruw Jones may be the best defensive outfielder in the majors.
Newcomer Robert Fick will be an upgrade at first base, and shortstop Rafael Furcal needs to break out of a two-season slump marred by injury.
“We have a bunch of old guys,” Manager Bobby Cox said.
“I’m confident we can blend our new guys with our old guys and still be successful. We’ve done it before, and we will do it again.”
Chipper Jones, coming off a season where he batted a team-high .327 and had 100 RBIs for the seventh year in a row, said he will do nothing different than in the past to motivate others.
“I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing,” Jones said. “If people want to follow what I do, they can. A lot of people on this team are leaders, but it mostly boils down to whoever is on the mound for us that night.”
Maybe it’s fitting that Smoltz made 75 appearances last season.
“Our success is mostly a tribute to our manager,” Smoltz said. “He’s the one that can bring in the new people and figure out how to make it work. It’s not as easy as we make it look.”
That said, he takes off his cap, leans against a clubhouse wall and starts humming his tune again. “It’s root, root, root for the home team . . .”
Make that Smoltz’s team.