Originally created 12/03/01

Braves, Smoltz agree on contract



ATLANTA -- Despite a preemptive strike by the New York Yankees, the Braves came away a winner in the John Smoltz sweepstakes.

Last-ditch negotiations Sunday between general manager John Schuerholz and Smoltz's agent, Lonnie Cooper, produced a three-year, $30 million deal with a club option for a fourth year at $12 million.

"I'm glad it's done," said Smoltz, who was playing in a golf tournament in Las Vegas. "It's been three weeks of no fun. I'm glad it's over. I'm worn out."

Smoltz turned down a four-year, $52 million offer from the Yankees to remain at home. The Braves were counting on Smoltz's ties to the community (he makes his home in Alpharetta), his plans to build a private school in the area, and his loyalty to the organization to keep him here. But they had to increase their offer from three years at $9 million annually to get their closer.

The deal will pay Smoltz a $2 million signing bonus and salaries of $7 million, $10 million and $11 million.

"I made a decision based on my family, my beliefs, and my peace of mind," Smoltz said. "I'm happy. I accomplished ultimately what I hoped to do."

What he did was become, along with the Yankees' Mariano Rivera, the highest-paid closer in the game, based on average salary. The Braves were loathe to match Rivera's salary because Smoltz is a relatively untested closer, but in the face of the Yankees' offer, they faced two choices: Pay Smoltz or find another closer.

"To have a guy like this in a closing role we think makes our pitching staff as strong as it can possibly be," Schuerholz said.

During a meeting with Schuerholz Friday, Smoltz indicated he would accept nothing less than a $10 million average salary. The Braves, who initially offered a two-year, $16 million deal, upped the ante Saturday to $9 million annually, then raised the stakes a final time Sunday.

In the end, both sides compromised. Smoltz didn't get the four-year deal he wanted, but he got the $10 million annual salary he sought, and the Braves raised their offer just enough to satisfy him and not to blow their winter budget.

"It's about both sides understanding the other side's point of view and negotiating in good faith," Schuerholz said. "We think we can build a winning team with John here and this contract."

Because of Smoltz's elbow surgery, the team won't be able to take out an insurance policy to protect itself in case of injury. Schuerholz admitted that was "disconcerting", but he refused to allow that to be a deal breaker.

"John has been a very instrumental part of our success," Schuerholz said. "Not only does he contribute on the field, but he's part of the fabric of our team in the clubhouse. The only issue we had was keeping him as a Brave and building a winning team with him on it."

But over the weekend, Smoltz thought he would be pitching in New York next season. The Braves were reluctant to meet Smoltz's demands and when the Yankees weighed in with a stupefying offer, he figured he was gone.

In response to a question of how he could leave $22 million on the table, the difference between the Braves' deal and the Yankees' offer, Smoltz sighed and said, "I don't know. When I get back in a week, maybe I'll sit down and try and figure it out."

To legions of Braves fans, the thought of him pitching in Yankee pinstripes was horrifying. It didn't draw much enthusiasm from his teammates, either. Right fielder Brian Jordan begged Smoltz to stay when the two met at a recent basketball game. Pitcher Tom Glavine said losing Smoltz would send the wrong message.

"It would be a huge blow," he said. "He's one of the guys you can classify as the heart of the ballclub. To me, John is one of those guys you assume is going to retire as a Brave. I think psychologically it would have been a big blow to our ballclub if we lost him."

In the end, Smoltz got what he wanted, and so did the Braves.

Reach Bill Zack at bzack30143@aol.com.