2006 NEWS

2006 News > 4/2/06


By Ben Shpigel, NY Times
Original Article HERE

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Tom Glavine was on an airplane several miles above middle America a few years ago when he initiated a conversation that reverberates every time he takes the mound. On that flight to the West Coast, Glavine sidled up to Tom Seaver, the Hall of Fame pitcher who was then a Mets broadcaster, and started peppering him with questions about Seaver's successful pursuit of 300 victories:

When you got there, were you still pitching at the level you desired, or were you declining?

Did you consider retiring before you reached the 300 mark?

What was going through your mind when you got there?

Seaver addressed all these topics and more before the plane landed, and his response can be distilled into this: "You have the honor and privilege of being in position to do something amazingly special," Seaver said, recalling their talk in a recent telephone interview. "If you have the chance, you must do it."

The advice has echoed throughout the greater part of Glavine's three seasons in New York, a period marked by initial struggles against his former team, the Atlanta Braves, and mediocre results (33-41) while playing for a mediocre team. He even lost two front teeth in a taxicab accident.

Through it all, he has maintained a reputation as one of baseball's most thoughtful players, serving as a voice of reason in the players union and as a go-to guy for reporters writing about provocative issues.

After turning 40 on March 25, and needing 25 victories to become the 23rd pitcher to win 300 games, Glavine said he had emerged from the adversity of the past three years as a stronger person and a better pitcher.

When he faces the Washington Nationals on April 3 at Shea Stadium, in his seventh opening-day start, his twin quest — to win 300 games and another world championship — seems much more achievable than it has at any point since he signed with the Mets in December 2002.

Buoyed by a bona fide closer, Billy Wagner, a revamped bullpen and a lineup bolstered by the acquisition of Carlos Delgado, the Mets should present the stiffest threat to the Braves' National League East dominance.

If Glavine wins 15 games this season, as he said he expected to, and there is little reason to suggest that he cannot, the Mets' chances at success will skyrocket.

Pitching at age 40 offers a reality check; the body ages and velocity drops. Glavine got a preview last season, when his time-tested approach of changing speeds and locating the ball down and away started losing some of its mojo. With 300 victories on the horizon, Glavine understood that even someone with five 20-victory seasons, two National League Cy Young awards and a World Series Most Valuable Player award on his résumé needed to reinvent himself.

He started throwing inside more and resurrected his curveball. He went 7-6 with a 2.20 earned run average after the All-Star Game and held opponents to a .228 batting average.

"We couldn't hit a darn thing he threw at us last year," Braves Manager Bobby Cox said.

Glavine said: "It wasn't about pitching one more year, it wasn't about getting through last year. If it was, I wouldn't have done it. I would have said, 'The heck with this, I'll just pitch the way I've always pitched and go home when the season's over.' I guess it was one of those things where I always had the ability to do it, but I just never had to. I was never forced into a position where I had to start making changes. But because I had all these goals farther out, that's what it became. And I knew I had to do it."

In the pantheon of individual achievements, compiling 300 victories has long been considered the pitching equivalent of hitting 500 home runs, the signature on a career's worth of sustained excellence. Admission to these exclusive clubs can be gained by averaging 30 homers over 17 seasons or having 15 20-victory seasons or 20 15-victory ones. Simple enough.

Yet in the current environment in major league baseball, for every pitcher in line to win 300 games, there are five or so hitters hammering away at 500 homers. In the next two seasons, Gary Sheffield, Frank Thomas, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome and Alex Rodriguez can all surpass the mark by having moderately successful seasons.

Aside from Glavine, the only other pitcher poised to reach 300 victories is Randy Johnson, 42, who may need three more seasons to earn the 37 needed to reach the mark. The odds are certainly against Johnson; Nolan Ryan is the only nonknuckleballer to win at least 37 games after age 42. After that, Pedro Martínez, 34, who needs 103 more, stands the best chance.

Managers are paying ever closer attention to pitch counts and relying heavily on their bullpens, reducing a starter's workload and, in turn, his opportunities to win. Only two pitchers in the 300-victory fraternity — Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux — began their careers after baseball started awarding saves in 1969.

"I may be wrong, but I don't think the rules of baseball have been amended so that starters can't pitch in the seventh inning," Don Sutton, who won 324 games over 23 seasons and is an analyst for Braves games on TBS, said in a recent telephone interview. "Every game is different, every set of environments is different. Making 120 pitches in the Astrodome is much different than making 120 pitches on a cold night at Wrigley Field."

Power pitchers like Clemens and Ryan and command artists like Maddux and Sutton proved that there is no one recipe to win 300 games. But Glavine's ingredients come close. He has made 603 consecutive starts without pitching in relief, an N.L. record, and has never been on the disabled list. His pitching style produces less wear and tear on his arm. And he has a mental makeup that Rick Peterson, the Mets' pitching coach, calls "off the charts."

"You can't go straight to 300 from 275," said Seaver, who ended up with 311 victories. "It's 25 small steps, but Tommy knows that. He has unparalleled mental discipline. That's why he got to 275 in the first place."

Growing up in Concord, Mass., Glavine had little perception of the gravitas of 300 victories. He was a Red Sox fan and therefore thought Luis Tiant was a great pitcher. But as he started developing his style, he found himself drawn toward Tommy John and Sutton.

"They didn't overpower guys, but they pitched," Glavine said. "I remember watching Tommy John, and he'd frustrate the Red Sox fan in me. A little bit of this, a little bit of that, ground ball, ground ball, 1-0, game's over in an hour and a half. And I was always like, 'How did they not hit this guy?' To an extent, I guess that's rubbed off on me."

It was not until Glavine watched Sutton record his 300th victory, in 1986, that the significance of the achievement registered. When he met Sutton in 1989 at spring training for the Braves, he found a kindred spirit. In Glavine, Sutton saw an incarnation of himself.

"You sit down and start looking at how many years he pitched and how many great years he had, and you start going through the back of the baseball card, and you're like, 'Oh, my god, the guy pitched for a long time,' " Glavine said. "That's the common denominator among all the 300-game winners. And then you start to get wide-eyed and amazed at how long they've been able to do that. Now I'm at that point."

Early in the 1990 season, Sutton treated some of the Braves' young pitchers to dinner and gave them the Myers-Briggs personality test. Glavine's score nearly matched Sutton's, and a few days later, Sutton predicted to a friend that Glavine, who had less than 40 victories at the time, would reach 200.

"Looking back, I was wrong," Sutton said. "Next time I see Tommy, I should apologize for shortchanging him. That man's got 300 written all over him."