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Smoltz returns to Atlanta in Boston colors

ATLANTA - John Smoltz woke up in his own bed, made pancakes for the kids, took a dip in the pool, then headed to the ballpark.

That's where things got a little strange.

'I can't help but think about all the times I drove in here, walked through that tunnel and made a quick right,' he said. 'This time, I had to go by it.'

Instead of going to Atlanta's home clubhouse, as he had done for the past two decades, Smoltz kept on walking to the visiting side. He now plays for the Boston Red Sox, who opened a three-game series against the Braves on Friday.

'I was honored to wear that other uniform as long as I did,' the 42-year-old right-hander said before the game. 'I wish them well - except for these three games.'

Smoltz got a chance to catch up with old friends when the Braves played a series in Boston last weekend. And he didn't have to pitch against his former team, having made his first big league start in more than a year the previous night at Washington.

Still, there was plenty of nostalgia as Smoltz returned to the city where he had so many brilliant seasons, where he expected to spend his entire career until a rather acrimonious split at the end of last year.

'This place will always be synonymous with me having some great moments,' Smoltz said. 'Nothing can take that away.'

The only pitcher in baseball history with 200 wins and 150 saves is relieved that his first start since undergoing shoulder surgery didn't come at Turner Field. The Red Sox gave him some extra time in the minors to rehab, setting up the schedule so he would miss pitching against the Braves in either Boston or Atlanta.

'I would have loved to pitch out here for all the obvious reasons,' Smoltz said. 'This is my favorite park to pitch in, period. I would have loved the opportunity. But I just didn't think making the first start here would have been a smart one. All the things that surrounded my first start at Washington would have been that much worse here.'

As it was, Smoltz was a little too pumped up for his first start since the injury that effectively ended his career in Atlanta and many felt would end his career for good.

He gave up four runs to the Nationals in the very first inning, but settled down after that. He retired the side in order in three of the next four innings and fanned the last three hitters he faced in the fifth. Most important, his surgically repaired shoulder felt fine the day after.

'Man, I wanted that mulligan off the first tee so bad,' Smoltz, an avid golfer, said with a smile. 'But it went well. I finished in grand fashion. Now I'm ready to do well.'

He insists that he's over any hard feelings toward Braves' management at the way it handled contract negotiations last winter, declining to match Boston's offer, but conceded that he's yet to speak with general manager Frank Wren or team president John Schuerholz.

Smoltz's angriest point came when it was time to go to spring training with the Red Sox - and he had to leave behind his Atlanta home, a 21-acre spread on a golf course in the northern suburbs.

'I sat there for 31/2 hours on the porch, then it hit me,' he remembered. 'I started getting mad. I didn't think I would get to see it for the next seven months. That place is pretty special to me. When I retire, there won't be too many trips.'

Wren, standing on the field during batting practice not far from where Smoltz was stretching, declined to answer any questions about the team's former ace.

'To me, that's a closed chapter,' he said.

Smoltz's old teammates are glad to see him back on the mound, though they're hardly surprised he was able to come back from such a serious operation at an age when most players have retired.

'He's a beast,' Braves reliever Mike Gonzalez said. 'Any other person, I wouldn't give him the benefit of the doubt. ... He's not like all the other guys. He's not like all of us. He's a step above.'

Smoltz warmed up on the third-base side and watched the game from the visiting dugout - a rather odd sight in light of all the years he pitched for the Braves.

'It's just weird. It doesn't seem right,' Gonzalez said. 'It's like seeing Chipper (Jones) in a Mets uniform or something.'

Smoltz plans to remain in Atlanta an extra day, giving him more time to spend with his four children. He'll fly out on Monday, then make his next start for the Red Sox after putting the Braves in the rearview mirror.

Not that he wouldn't like to pitch against his old team.

The only way it can happen this year would be in the World Series.

'That,' Smoltz said, 'would be the perfect scenario.'