2003 NEWS

2003 News > 2/15/03


By John Harper, New York Daily News

DULUTH, Ga. Squatting behind home plate, glove held low where I figure Tom Glavine likes it, I'm trying to look and act like a catcher. But I can't help thinking like a sports writer.

It occurs to me, as I try to ignore the creaking in my knees, that to be any closer to one of the hot stories of this winter, I'd have to be riding shotgun with LeBron James, or dining with Derek Jeter and George Steinbrenner.

After all, it's three days before Mets pitchers and catchers report to spring training, and I have the distinction of becoming the first New Yorker to catch Glavine, the future Hall of Famer who has defected from the hated Braves.

Never mind that this cavernous indoor facility called the Hardball Warehouse won't ever be confused with Shea Stadium. There Glavine is, standing 60 feet away, and you don't have to be in the Sistine Chapel to appreciate that Michaelangelo could paint a little.

Glavine's artistry as a pitcher is what has brought me here. He is legendary for his precision, his ability to change speeds, nip corners and win 18-20 games a year, all without an imposing fastball, and I want to see for myself what makes him so effective.

Glavine has agreed to let me catch him in his final throwing session before spring training, though I get the feeling he's not as moved by this experience as I am.

It doesn't help that I'm 10 minutes late, after getting lost in a maze of freeways and country roads that lead to this outpost some 30 minutes north of Atlanta.

When I arrive, Glavine is ready to throw. There will be time to chat later.

On target

After 15 warmup throws, the 36-year-old climbs the mound and I go into a crouch.

He waves his glove in the standard fastball signal, and here we go. I set up toward the outside of the plate to a righthanded hitter, the spot where Glavine has made his living for 15-plus years in the big leagues. His first pitch, no surprise, is so true that I don't have to move my glove to catch it.
Glavine then motions for me to slide out farther, so that the middle of my chest is in line with the outside corner. He tells me later he'll ask Mike Piazza to set up the same way on either side of the plate because he uses the catcher's body, not the glove, as his target.

"I can't throw to the glove," he says. "I want the catcher's body splitting the corner. I'm looking at your chest and I want the glove right there in your chest."

Glavine says he gets more calls from umpires if his catchers set up this way, and don't have to move the glove to catch a pitch that is an inch or so off the corner.

"Umpires don't want to see movement," he explains. "If you get your catcher to set up a couple of inches off the plate, and you're consistently hitting that spot, it's not hard for an umpire to call that."

So it's true, as Mets fans have complained for years, that Glavine and Greg Maddux get those extra couple of inches off the plate. But Glavine also says that umpires did tighten the corners on him when Major League Baseball made the strike zone a very public issue a few years ago.

Glavine admits it hurt him, but he eventually started pitching inside more aggressively to righthanded hitters, and by last year he was more effective than ever.

"It made me a better pitcher," he says.

With that in mind, Glavine moves me from one side of the plate to the other every couple of pitches, and hits the glove with deadly accuracy, as I begin to relax and enjoy the show.

Once a college shortstop more years ago than I care to remember, I was fairly confident that my hands were still sure enough for this duty. But I'm not terribly disappointed to see, after a handful of pitches, that Glavine is not throwing his midseason fastball.

He explains later that he takes his time building arm strength, so on this day he's only throwing 78-80 mph, not the 88 mph or so he'll be throwing by Opening Day.

Still, the pop of the glove is echoing off the walls, and even at 80 mph, Glavine's fastball can be sneaky fast because his delivery is so effortless. And when he gestures to me with his glove and throws his first changeup, I quickly see why the pitch has been the bane of hitters for years.

He throws it with the same arm speed as his fastball, and the same rotation out of his hand. Halfway to the plate, you'd swear it's his two-seam fastball, but then it runs out of steam, tumbling as it reaches the plate about ankle-high, on or just off the corner to a righthander, some 6-8 mph slower than his fastball.

Fortunately, I know it's coming, so I manage to keep from stabbing early at it, like a hitter would, but I'm nevertheless awed by the pitch.

"The feedback I get is that everything about it looks like my fastball," Glavine says, "but then that separation in speed makes it very difficult to hit."

Gaining control

To see him at work, you'd think Glavine was always a control specialist. But in high school in Massachusetts, he was a power pitcher who, as he puts it, "would walk 10 hitters a game, but strike out 17."

A second-round draft choice by the Braves in 1984 out of high school, Glavine moved quickly through the system, but says he realized by the time he reached Double-A he would need an offspeed pitch to be successful in the big leagues.

He experimented with the circle change, the grip used by many pitchers in which the thumb and forefinger form a circle and the ball is pushed deep into the palm.

But Glavine says he had trouble throwing it slow enough, and relied more on his sinking fastball and breaking stuff early in his career. Then in the early '90s he came upon the changeup grip that turned him into a two-time Cy Young Award winner.

"And it really happened by accident," he says. "In spring training one day I picked up a ball and it settled into my hand on my middle and ring finger, and I remember thinking, 'This feels like it would be hard to throw this pitch with any speed.'

"I had a side session in the bullpen that day, and I tried it, and I was right, I couldn't throw it hard. Once I could trust the speed, I worked on the control, and it became a great pitch for me."

Glavine calls his sinking fastball and his changeup "my bread-and-butter pitches," and estimates that combined they account for 75%-80% of his pitches.

But on this day, and probably for much of spring training, he is working on his breaking stuff. So gradually now he mixes in sliders, cutters and slow overhand curves.

And where I expected to be impressed with his changeup, I'm surprised by the quality of his breaking balls. The slider, thrown only a couple of mph slower than his fastball, has a tight rotation and late break, which means it looks like a fastball for a long time.

In addition, Glavine's cutter moves in harder and later on righthanders than I would have guessed. It doesn't have the speed of Mariano Rivera's cutter, or the violent down-and-in action of Al Leiter's, but if it's thrown in the right location, Glavine's cutter has enough on it to tie up righthanded hitters.

"Yeah," he says, "but it's easy to throw that pitch when I don't have to worry about making a mistake with it. It's harder to trust it with a hitter in there. That's what makes pitching away so much easier. If I make a mistake out there, it's usually only a single.

"I've been stubborn over the years about pitching away, but even though hitters know I'm going to work them away, I find that most hitters are not going to allow themselves to hit singles to right field all day. They want to hit home runs and extra-base hits. In the back of their mind they're always waiting for you to hang that one pitch they can smoke, and when you throw the ball down and away where you want to, you get your nice little ground ball or popup."

Language of glove

There is more to Glavine's approach than preying on hitters' egos. Ask him how he pitches certain hitters and he'll explain that most pitches he throws are determined by where he threw the previous one, and how the hitter reacted.

He reads body language and tries to stay a step ahead.

"So much of what they do," he says, "dictates what I'm going to do."

It has always been this way, Glavine says. He's as cool and calm on the mound as Leiter is animated. He's a perfectionist who studies hitters and scouting reports, and calls his own game. Unlike Maddux, who hasn't thrown to Javy Lopez, the Braves' No. 1 catcher, for years, Glavine says he's never asked to have a particular catcher.

"I don't have a complicated game plan," he says. "I might shake off 10 to 15 pitches a game, but everybody knows what I like to throw. Mainly I want my catchers to get out there a couple of inches off the plate so I can hit that spot and they don't have to move the glove to catch it."

After 15 minutes and about 50 pitches, I know that feeling. And aside from the burning in my quadriceps, I'm doing fine. I've bobbled only one pitch, but otherwise I'm as smooth as Joe Girardi.

Glavine has missed his location only a few times, each of which prompts a grunt of disgust, followed by more perfection. Finally, he signals that he's done, so I trot out to see how my pitcher is feeling.

"You good?" I say, using baseball-speak to ask whether Glavine is finished throwing.

Except with the noise of a college football team doing speed-training work nearby, Glavine apparently hears "Good?" and thinks I'm inquiring about my performance.

His response is as succinct as his pitching is precise.

"It was painless," he says with a shrug.

From Glavine, ever the understated assassin with a baseball in his hand, I take that as a compliment. And after our interview, I leave with a comforting thought: good thing I didn't ask to hit against him.