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Smoltz Ready For 19th Big-League Season

Having just wrapped up a spring training workout, John Smoltz decided it was time to have a little fun. He broke into some good-natured bantering with the clubhouse attendants, who were going through a dirty pile of uniforms.

"I don't think they're using detergent anymore," the pitcher quipped.

Everyone had a good laugh, Smoltz included. He sure can use a little levity as he heads into his 19th big league season with the Atlanta Braves.

Just a few days before pitchers and catchers reported to camp, Smoltz announced he was getting a divorce from his wife of 16 years _ a stunning blow for the deeply religious parents of four school-age children, a couple who expressed their faith through well-known philanthropy that included raising millions of dollars for a Christian school in suburban Atlanta.

The ordeal has clearly taken a toll on Smoltz, who's less than three months from his 40th birthday and noticeably thinner than he was a year ago. But he's counting on his convictions to get him through this personal crisis.

"I'm doing good," he insisted Sunday, speaking in a low voice while sitting at his locker. "I'm focused on the right things. I'm talking about my faith. That's the only thing that's going to get me through any of this stuff. I'm still determined to be and do the same things I've done before. I'm trying to be positive. Attitude is a choice."

Smoltz is approaching his divorce with the same attitude that helped him overcome some of his on-the-field hurdles, such as four elbow operations and the meandering career path that took him from starter to closer and back to starter again.

"I've had to overcome a lot," he said. "It's not like I haven't had to do this before. From that standpoint, this will just be another challenge. More importantly, this is going to prove to be an example."

Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley is the only other pitcher in baseball history with 150 wins and 150 saves _ and the Eck didn't return to a starting role after becoming a closer.

Smoltz won the Cy Young Award with a 24-8 season in 1996. He set an NL record with 55 saves in 2002. He has 30 wins over the last two seasons, again establishing himself as one of baseball's top starters.

Now, Smoltz seems determined to prove that splitting up with his wife doesn't undermine the message he's been trying to spread. If anything, he wants to demonstrate how beliefs and character can help someone cope with the breakdown of a marriage.

"Either the words match up to what I've been saying or the principles that I adhere to will be tested," he said. "A lot of people are watching. This is no different than when I was going from starter to closer. Everyone said I couldn't do it. This is no different. The only thing I want to do is make sure that we protect those four kids and move on from this."

Smoltz still needs to put on about 10 pounds, but the Braves are counting on him to remain the ace of their rotation. He was their unquestioned leader in 2006, leading the team in wins (16) and innings (232) while making all 35 of his scheduled starts, with no hint of the elbow problems that have plagued him.

He likely would have been a 20-game winner if not for a leg problem that hampered him for three starts and a dismal Braves bullpen that made no lead safe. In seven appearances, Smoltz was either charged with the loss or didn't factor in the decision despite lasting at least seven innings and giving up no more than three runs.

"John easily could have won the Cy Young," manager Bobby Cox said. "If we could have held a few leads, he would have won it."

As it was, the award went to Arizona's Brandon Webb, with Smoltz finishing a distant seventh. Their numbers were much more comparable than the voting indicated: They had the same number of wins, while Smoltz made two more starts and Webb pitched two more innings. The winner's main advantage was an ERA of 3.10, compare with Smoltz's 3.49.

Unlike past seasons, when perennial elbow problems always seemed to crop up late in the year, Smoltz was at his best coming down the stretch. He won his final four starts in commanding fashion, allowing only three earned runs in 29 innings.

Unfortunately for Smoltz, the only satisfaction was personal. The Braves had long since been knocked out of the NL East race, their streak of 14 straight division titles ended by the New York Mets.

"I would have liked to be in the playoffs," said Smoltz, the winningest pitcher in postseason history. "I approached those last four games as the playoffs once I knew we were eliminated. That was my playoffs."

He's in the final year of his contract with the Braves, and has made no secret that he wants to begin and finish his career with the same team. There have been some discussions about a new contract, but Smoltz is already coming to grips with the fact that he might have to go somewhere else.

If anything, the dissolution of his marriage has taught him that nothing lasts forever.

"I really don't know what the future holds," said Smoltz, who's not even considering retirement. "I've made it known my whole career that I wanted to stay here. But times are changing."