LAKELAND, Fla. -- The back fields at Tiger Town still appear to be miles away from Joker Marchant Stadium.
The minor league dormitories are still sparsely furnished and the clubhouses are cramped.
John Smoltz walked across a parking lot Monday morning toward a distant diamond with a sense of deja vu overwhelming him. He spent three springs here and the memories came rushing back as he stretched and loosened his arm.
"Walking back to the old fields brought back a lot of memories," he said. "There are a few subtle changes, but it's still where I started out and you always remember where you started."
Smoltz, who was traded to the Atlanta Braves in exchange for veteran pitcher Doyle Alexander in August 1987 in a deal the Detroit Tigers have spent the last decade ruing, still feels a special thrill facing his old team. Making his first spring start Monday afternoon, he worked two innings and allowed two hits and one earned run in Atlanta's 9-7 victory, then soaked his right elbow in a bucket of ice water afterward and reminisced.
"I never pitched on this field other than bp," Smoltz said. "But I sat in those stands quite a few times watching (the Tigers) play. I played three springs here, stayed in the dorms, did all the routines, saw all the big leaguers way over here."
Smoltz, who grew up in Warren, Mich., and was on his way to realizing his boyhood dream of playing for the Tigers when he was traded, finally faced his old club two years ago when Detroit visited Atlanta during interleague play. The dream quickly turned into a nightmare, however, when he lasted only 3 1/3 innings and gave up 10 hits and eight earned runs.
But that was then and this is now. Smoltz didn't allow the sight of his former team to get into his head on his return and emerged satisfied with his performance.
"I don't care if you've pitched 20 years in the big leagues, the first time you go out there is so different from any bp you're going to throw or any side session," he said. "In the side sessions I've been throwing the ball absolutely where I want to throw it and today I had a little less of that feeling."
Smoltz, who might have challenged teammate Tom Glavine for the Cy Young award last season if he hadn't missed nine starts because of the lingering effects of elbow surgery, isn't experiencing any pain this spring. But two surgeries on the same elbow in the last four years has forced him to change his power approach to pitching. He understands he can no longer blow hitters away with his fastball consistently, so he worked to improve a changeup last season and he's continuing to work on it this spring.
"When that's all you've done your whole life, it's very difficult (to change)," he said. "It's easy to say, don't overthrow, but sometimes harder to accomplish. I've become a different pitcher the last year, but there's going to be points remembering the old self and (say) let's just hump up and throw it."
That happened in the second when he struck out Deivi Cruz to end the inning, popping a fastball past the shortstop to strand runners on first and third.
"He didn't air it out until the last strikeout," manager Bobby Cox said. "He looked good."
Smoltz won 17 of 20 decisions last season and posted a 2.90 ERA, his best since a 2.85 ERA in 1992. He made only 26 starts, his fewest since the abbreviated 1994 season, and if history repeats itself he'll post big numbers this season.
Following elbow surgery in 1994, he won 12 games the next season. It was two years after the surgery that he won a career-high 24 games and the Cy Young award.
"My whole goal is to be able to throw effectively with less pain," Smoltz said. "The pain is going to come and go. I'm probably going to have elbow situations the rest of my life. I want to remember a lot of what I did last year. I have a tough time explaining how it happened, I really do. All I can tell you is that mentally I was as good as I'll ever be. I don't know how it happened, but I want to regain that in a healthy way."
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