John Smoltz has finally left the Braves. Now, if you read this blog regularly, you'll know that my opinion of baseball is, at best, unflattering. I haven't watched a game on television in over a decade, and the only games I've managed to make it through at all were minor league games in person. The sport just moves too slow for me. I know the pace is the draw for some, but they also like to have televisions on for background noise during their naps. Me, I take my napping seriously. If I'm napping, I'm doing it right, not this dozing in and out and getting in a couple of pitch counts here and there. Similarly, if I watch a sport, I want to be able to vividly remember all of the best plays at the end. I shouldn't need Sports Center to remind me about what I saw when I'm done.
But I have a special place in my heart for the Braves. They came into their own just as I was preparing to hit puberty. Their worst-to-first season was the year I ended fifth grade and entered the sixth. During that same period, I had my first real crush. (Oh Melissa, I can't even remember your face. The only thing left of you is that you were short and blond.) The group of friends who helped define me throughout my adolescence was just starting to form. I watched countless games with my dad that summer and names like Mark Lemke, Greg Olson, and Rafael Belliard are forever etched in my mind. I even saw Belliard hit one of his few home runs, which is much like seeing a penguin in the wild north of the equator. It happens, just not enough for people to believe you when you tell them. It seems like only yesterday when I asked my dad why they let an 80-year-old man play center field. Turned out that Otis Nixon was only in his early 30s at the time and it was just the massive quantities of drugs he did.
The only man left from the squad that ended decades of Atlanta professional athletic mediocrity was Smoltz, and now he plays for the Red Sox. It seems like a bit of a door on my childhood has been closed with this business deal. I couldn't even name three players on the Braves roster now. Chipper Jones has had a lengthy career in Atlanta, but his rookie year (not counting eight games in '93) was the World Series winning year of '95. By that time, I'd already had the debacle of a little league season in the summer after seventh grade that closed the door on the sport for me forever. That season of sitting on the bench for every game in favor of a kid with less athleticism and skill than I because of who our dads were wasn't the entire reason I grew to hate the sport. I had already began to drift away, bored with the pace. I'd never really been fond of playing. I'd always much preferred football and basketball, but that was the death knell for me.
Smoltz, the last face from that team in '91 when I was still a kid excited to watch a game with my dad, was the last active link between me and that time in my life. Of course, at 28, I have had several othes. The death of my grandfather didn't really feel that way. It was my freshman year in college and I didn't really feel completely adult yet. The first big change to really feel like I was leaving childhood behind was the death of Cooney, the cat my family had and adored from the time I was in Kindergarten until my junior year of college. The next to go and serve as another symbol of the inevitability of change was Reggie, the dog we'd had for almost as long and the one by which I still measure all other dogs. The passing of Smoltz the Brave just makes me feel older and even more removed from my childhood.
I wish Smoltz well. He'd always represented Atlanta and the Braves well. He's had an amazing career, but he's obviously on his way out. Still, I think he's earned the right to go out on his terms, even if it means throwing that pale little ball until his arm no longer functions. If you'd like a more angry and bitter response to this bit of news, then try Hank's take on the issue.