Tom Glavine was nothing but a past-it old jock who had made his fun long ago — with bullies. He was a prick. Unrelatable. He wouldn't buy us beer. At the team pizza party, he got up from our table to talk with parents about kids-these-days and panel siding. Of course he wasn't devastated; he, a disgusting grownup. It was all his fault; we wept; and all the old bastard could do was shrug his shoulders and move to suburban Atlanta.
This is Tom Glavine as dictated by the devil on my left shoulder. He (the devil) and I were there in 2007. The moment John Maine gave up that hit in the eighth, I was buying my ticket for game 162. My scorecard-book went with me, but no persons to distract. I recall that my seat fell in the middle of a crammed upper deck to the first-base side of home plate. In groups of twos and threes the crowd chattered. I rubbed my hands. I was supremely, gigglingly happy. I love a big game alone.
The years of Brave dominance were my childhood and adolescence — they were long years — when I took gravest offense to the tomahawk chop. I thought Atlanta fans were just the bottom of the barrel, though I should have been disinterested as a White Sox fan in Chicago. Their big three pitchers I was happy to experience in small, spiteful doses, as when they lost World Series. So it was only years later as a transplanted New Yorker that I took full stock of Glavine's career.
In his first 16 seasons, Tom Glavine won two Cy Young Awards and placed top three in voting in four additional seasons. (In three of those, the winner was Greg Maddux.) He was an all-star eight times, a World Series Champion and four-time runner up, a World Series MVP, and a 20-game winner in five different seasons. He pitched the entire span of the 90s averaging 222 innings and 4.4 fWAR per season, never once hitting the disabled list or ever really stumbling. It was a hell of a decade-plus.
Glavine was an honor student at his high school in Billerica, Mass. — America's Yankee Doodle Town — and a standout athlete in skates as well as spikes. If he chose hockey, Lowell University was prepared to offer him a full scholarship. "Coming from the background I came from, a free education was something you took seriously," said Glavine, whose father owned a small construction outfit and whose mother worked as a school secretary. But the choice came down to opportunity. "I'm a left-handed pitcher and everyone seems to want one," Glavine recalled thinking. "So boy, I'd better take advantage of that."
Bill James wrote that Glavine defines "exactly how many strikeouts you absolutely have to have to win in the Major Leagues, if you're left handed and you do everything well." Never powerful, Glavine threw a two-seamer in the mid-to-low 80s to both sides of the plate and hit those same spots with a magic changeup. "It disappears," Bobby Cox said. "It literally does." He unleased a four-seamer to batters he suspected of sitting on the change, and went in to righties with a cutter. The arsenal wasn't good for high strikeout totals; across his golden years, he wasn't averaging more than six strikeouts per nine. Nor was he a model of efficiency, walking more than three batters per nine in his career. But he got results — a 121 ERA+ in Atlanta — that suggested Tommy knew something about pitching.
He threw twice off the mound between starts and threw light side sessions every day, even the day after a start. "The thing that gets overlooked more than anything in pitching is practice," he said. Rookie or veteran, he focused primarily on the feel of a good pitch, and made minute alterations day to day, throw to throw. "I have been given the ability to put the ball where I want to. It's been a lot of hard work to refine that."
The devil has another theory, and calls Rick Peterson to the stand. Peterson, speaking in 2006, blamed computerized ball and strike tracking for lopping "five, six inches" off the generous strike zone Glavine had once been given by deferential umpires. "[N]o hitter in baseball could cover that," he said. "There was no need to pitch to both sides of the plate." In Peterson's telling, Glavine "never prepared for opposing hitters," serving everyone the same diet of outside fastballs and changeups, until he, Rick Peterson, taught the veteran to use more tools and think carefully through his starts.
Decide for yourself why Glavine was a successful Brave.
Then Glavine, 37, was a Met. In December of 2002, he signed a three year, $35 million deal, and made a disastrous debut in a 15-2 drubbing by the Cubs on Opening Day. The $120 million team went 10-22 in Glavine starts, 66-95 on the year. Glavine's ERA ballooned 1.5 runs from his last year in Atlanta; he struck out a batter less per nine; and for the first time in his career, averaged one home run per nine.
Early 2004 brought out the good in Glavine; the whole brought out the mediocre. He started with a 7-3 record, a 2.03 ERA, and an invitation to the All-Star game. On May 23rd he pitched a one-hit shutout against the Rockies, the no-hit bid only broken in the eighth. But the second half was like the taxicab accident in which he lost his front teeth: not a disaster, but pretty annoying. Glavine finished with numbers everywhere improved from his 2003 campaign. But the man was paid like an ace.
Groans were loud, then, when his start to 2005 suggested the magic was really gone. His ERA through May was well above five. New arrival Pedro Martinez somehow seemed a more attractive species of legend on the back-end of a career, and indeed he pitched much better. But Glavine rebounded to have his best months as a Met in late 2005 bridging into the first half of 2006. Suddenly Glavine wasn't the disappointing ace of a bad team, but a solid contributor to an exciting, relevant team. From the 2005 All-Star break to late May of '06, Glavine's 2.32 ERA was worse than only Johan Santana's. That wouldn't continue, of course, but nor would 2005 or 2006 stick out as ungainly if they had come in Atlanta in the 1990s. Glavine was a mid-3-ERA lefthander giving us 200 innings a year.
In the '06 playoffs, he blanked the Dodgers through six innings and won Game One of the NLDS. Then he did it again. The Cardinals could manage no runs against him in seven innings of Game One of the Championship Series, and the Mets were front-runners in the race to the World Series. Let us pause and appreciate Tom Glavine, for those were great, wonderful days! In Game Five, Glavine slipped, exiting early having given up three runs. The Mets would not win Game Five, would not go ahead 3-2, and ultimately would not make it to the World Series. Glavine signed on for a one year, $10.5 million extension. He had "unfinished business."
Many games were won and lost in 2007, but only two games matter to Glavintine posterity. On August 5, 2007, Glavine won his 300th game. Whatever you think of this counting stat — I happen to think you can't celebrate a no-hitter but sneer at this other bit of traditionally important silliness — it was a moment to recognize Glavine's hard-wearing career. Glavine, 41, had still never hit the disabled list, and he had been a fine pitcher from my kindergarden year through my marriage proposal. He is one of 24 pitchers to have won 300 games, seven of whom were lefties.
My shoulder-devil asks that I remind you I was alone. It all happened so fast. The National Anthem, I suppose, was sung. Somebody lobbed a first pitch. Then hit after hit came; run after run scored; the normal thing about baseball — it's kinda, you know, slow — was entirely suspended as balls raced gaily over fielders' heads. The job done by Glavine was so horrendous it was impossible not to believe terrible, wicked things about the doer. This was not Carlos Beltran taking a curveball on the outside corner; any hitter has done that a hundred times. This was practically an innovation in bad pitching. And it was reserved for when it would cause the most pain, the most shame, the least October baseball for the good people who cheer on the New York Mets.
I booed hard, friends. It's a special type of unhinged-itude that crops up among 45,000 disgusted, disgusted, disgusted fans. When you go to a game alone, you practically sign a compact to be fully absorbed, deaf to perspective and mitigating cares. Boy, how I loved Jose Reyes and David Wright. Boy, how I tolerated and wanted the best from Uncle Glavine. Then the first inning ended, and I could have submitted testimony to a High Commission alleging Treason and Soul Murder and Conduct Unbecoming of a Human Being on Fucking Earth.
He, though, was a grownup or a philosopher or a once-and-future-Brave or something. He was "not devastated."
In the last analysis, Tom Glavine was a Brave. When he took a steep pay cut to join them in '08, he spoke of the choice between pitching in Atlanta or having "162 road games a year" with the Mets. Thanks. So it is hard and plenty distasteful to admit Glavine as one of the Top 50 Mets of all time. But fairness is fairness. Stats are stats. Hard-headed nerdlingers are hard-headed nerdlingers to the end. Glavine pitched more than 1000 innings with the Mets with an above-average ERA, a couple of All-Star half-seasons, and some happy postseason success. If his heart was in it, maybe 42 Mets wouldn't kick his ass on this list.
But I'm not devastated.