The viewpoints of Nick Scherer and the Red Sox weren’t all that different.
“When I think of a great pitcher,” said Director of Operations for the Georgia Tech baseball team, “I think of John
On a sunny, early December day in Atlanta, Scherer and the Red Sox met up on a collegiate baseball field to be
reminded why such opinions exist. It was the Georgia Tech coach who caught Smoltz’s pitches, and it was Sox pitching
coach John Farrell, Vice President of Player Personnel Ben Cherington, and assistant trainer Mike Reinold who
witnessed them. “My coach calls me over and asks if I would catch one of these guys. I thought it was one of our
major league guys or minor league guys coming back, but then John Smoltz comes walking over. I’m like, ‘Oh, this
should be interesting.’”
And it was interesting, enough so that it drastically altered a team’s perspective that, a few weeks earlier, didn’t
give much of a chance to the idea of Smoltz wearing a Red Sox cap at a press conference like the one held at Fenway
But back in November, from the Red Sox' viewpoint, John Smoltz wore the tag of a long-shot.
His name was first bandied about within the Red Sox’ offices along with a collection of pitchers who had just hit
the free agent market. Like others identified by the Sox, Smoltz had value to the organization, but also wasn’t
without at least a smattering of reasons he might not end up fitting in Boston.
There was that surgery the 41-year-old had back on June 2, repairing a torn labrum in his pitching shoulder. Word
throughout baseball – including within the team Smoltz called his own for the past 20 seasons, the Atlanta Braves –
was that this repair might make a comeback infeasible.
Doubts also lingered regarding whether Smoltz could actually sever the cord between himself and that Braves team
with whom he had re-signed four times since coming aboard via a 1987 trade for Doyle Alexander. (The Doyle Alexander
who, by the way, is now 58 years old.)
Then, while sitting in their suite at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas at the Baseball Winter Meetings, the tide
started to turn.
While Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein tended to some other player procurement business, a collection of the
organization’s decision-makers first gathered around the television to watch a video Smoltz had made of himself
working out. It wasn’t anything too extensive – the pitcher throwing both a football and baseball – but showed
enough to ramp up the interest of the Sox.
A request was made and an invitation was extended.
Just about one week from the time the Red Sox’ staff first viewed Smoltz’ tape the trio of Farrell, Cherington, and
Reinold were on a plane bound for Atlanta. The pitcher was confident in his chances to impress even though he had
thrown just once – off an inside mound – since his surgery.
“When the call came I said, ‘Sure,’” Smoltz said. “Obviously you’re going to have some anticipation. The first time
I threw (prior to the Red Sox’ visit) my heart was almost coming out of my chest because it had been six months.”
The Sox’ contingent didn’t know what to expect in the 50-pitch side session, perhaps just a stream of straight balls
and a subsequent physical examination. But, with his agents also looking on, Smoltz first threw a few 40-yard passes
and then picked up a slew of worn baseballs he said “had a mind of their own.”
Finally came the first pitch.
“I’m standing back there ready to get this warm-up pitch,” Scherer remembered. “Then, all of a sudden, here comes
this 92 mph fastball, low and away, that doesn’t touch my glove. I immediately thought, ‘I better get down now. He’s
ready to go.’
“The way it came out of his hand … it shoots out of his hand. The thing I was amazed at was when he was warming up.
I’ve seen him pitch a ton of times, but then I saw him warming up throwing the football back and forth and he’s
launching it halfway down the field. Then he’s barely throwing the baseball and it’s coming out there at 90 mph.”
But, much to the surprise of the Red Sox observers, there weren’t just the fastballs. Along came Smoltz’s trademark
slider, with the tight, late break, and some changeups and curves, for good measure. This wasn’t what any of the
onlookers were expecting.
“He starts mixing in his slider, and I’m like, ‘All right, it has a nice late break and it’s hard,’” Scherer said.
“But then he was like, ‘Now I’m going to throw a curveball,’ and he breaks off this 12-to-6 that totally fools me.
And then he starts saying we’re going to throw split-fingers, changeups, and a little of this and that. I’m like,
‘Good Lord Smoltzy, you’re ready to pitch, aren’t you?!’”
As Smoltz went along the heads started nodding in approval, while also turning in disbelief. The only one that
didn’t seem surprised was the pitcher himself.
“I do things by feel. I know my body,” Smoltz said. “I don’t do anything crazy that the doctors say I absolutely
shouldn’t do. But I have already worked in a way that is always geared around what’s best for my body. So when it
came to throwing I just decided to start throwing because I felt like I was capable of that.”
The entire visit with Smoltz lasted approximately 1 ½ hours, with Reinold following up the bullpen session with a
quick examination of the hurler's arm and shoulder. It was enough for the team to head toward Christmas with a
revamped wish-list, and the player impressed enough to politely decline other teams’ request to attend similar
“John Farrell came away from that bullpen saying that if that had been the bullpen John threw the first day of
spring training, we would have been really pleased,” said Epstein. “That was six months after surgery. So I think
that shows how far along he was and he passed our physical (Monday) with flying colors.”
Just under a month from the workout in Atlanta, last Wednesday, Smoltz and the Red Sox came to financial terms.
After a night of sleeping on it to make certain of his decision, the pitcher concluded what was once thought to be
an improbable journey.
“I’m determined and focused as I’ve ever been,” he said in what was his first press conference since being drafted
by Detroit as an 18-year-old.
And if anybody doubts the determination, the Red Sox will always tell you about that one day … one Nick Scherer will
“It was,” the impromptu catcher said, “an unbelievable day.”