2006 NEWS

2006 News > 6/4/06

TOMMY FINALLY TELLS THE TOOTH

By TJ Quinn, NY Daily News

The bone they grafted to the shattered roof of his mouth came from his jaw. When that healed, they drilled through his gums, into the new bone, to plant temporary posts. After six months the posts come out, and he gets permanent replacements.

That process started 22 months ago for Tom Glavine.

"It's still not over," he says, tapping his teeth. "These are plastic."

In August 2004, after visiting his family in Atlanta during an off-day, Glavine got in a cab at LaGuardia to make the five-minute ride to Shea, and an SUV slammed into his taxi. Glavine's face hit the plexiglass, his two front teeth came out, the bone behind them shattered.

For all his travails since signing a contract with the Mets - and there had been many - it was the minutes he sat in a cab, bleeding wildly from his mouth, that might have been the topper. Glavine had had a horrific debut in 2003, giving up four runs in his first inning as a Met, losing 15-2 to the Cubs. His new team lost 90 games two seasons in a row.

"When you come from a team like the Braves that wins championships year in and year out, you're not prepared for losing. It makes for a miserable summer," says Milwaukee Brewers manager Ned Yost, a longtime friend of Glavine's. "You always knew that Tommy was going to do his part."

In those miserable summers Glavine also saw his chances of winning 300 games - which would make him a dead cinch for the Hall of Fame - wither.

And now, in the back of a New York taxi driven by a Latvian immigrant who had never heard of him, Glavine also knew he had just wasted years of dental work to have his teeth straightened and would be ending his night in a hospital gown, not a uniform.

All because he had gone to see his family in Atlanta, and was trying to get to his job in New York.

"It was, 'Oh my God, what else can happen?'" he says now.

The killer was that at the time of his accident his record was 8-10, but his ERA was an impressive 2.92. After struggling through 2003 he was he was pitching like an All-Star, but on a team going nowhere. Every night it seemed the bullpen was blowing the small leads he gave them.

Glavine left an Atlanta Braves club that had won 11 consecutive division titles (now it's 14 and counting) for a second division club that also happened to be the second team in town. Maybe his five 20-win seasons and two Cy Young awards in Atlanta were enough to get him to Cooperstown, but he wasn't doing himself any favors in New York.

After the accident, Glavine's ERA over the rest of the season was 5.71 and the Mets finished 20 games below .500. From the accident until the 2005 All-Star break, he went 9-11 with a 5.20 ERA.

Through it all came a combination of occasional awkward moments - one of his plastic temporary teeth would slip out during a meal and he would have to suffer the agony of more dental surgery, more procedures. There's a reason that the scene in "Marathon Man" when Sir Lawrence Olivier tortures Dustin Hoffman with a dental drill makes people clench their jaws and reach for their mouths 30 years after they saw the movie.

"The implant was worse than the accident," says Glavine, who gave up two runs in seven innnings and got a no-decision in the nightcap of the Mets' twinbill vs. the Giants at Shea last night.

But other than updating the team on his dental procedures, he kept his pain to himself.

"I don't think he ever told anybody how bad it was," says Yost, who was the veteran catcher on staff when Glavine was a 19-year-old prospect on the Braves' Double-A Greenville, S.C. team in 1985. "Anything that would look like it's an excuse, you won't hear it coming out of his mouth."

And all the while he's trying to pitch, reading the city papers, the Jersey papers, the Long Island papers, the Westchester papers, getting free advice about why he has gone from the greatest left-hander since Steve Carlton to a skinny Mo Vaughn.

"People are saying it's my stuff, I don't have my stuff, people saying he can't pitch inside, everything," he says.

And maybe, he admitted at the time, life in New York would never be what he dreamed. "But I'm not going to sit there and accept I was at that point," he says. "I just didn't feel that way."

Glavine was always harder to read than his fellow starters in Atlanta, and he remained inscrutable in New York. He managed a sense of humor, sending out cards that Christmas two years ago that said, "All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth."

"I probably had moments at home when I was less steady," he says now. "I'd talk to my wife. Without being overly dramatic about it, that's where our religious faith comes in."

But legendary Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone, now with the Orioles, says Glavine had a toughness the rest of the world almost never sees.

"He has the toughest mindset of any pitcher I've been around," Mazzone says. "He can pitch through adversity, I've seen him pitch through pain, I've seen him pitch through personal problems - he's just a tough-minded guy."

In Game 6 of the 1995 World Series against Cleveland, Glavine was engaged in a scoreless duel with Dennis Martinez.

"He came in the dugout and slammed his glove and he said, 'Would somebody score a damn run? Because they're not,'" Mazzone says. They didn't. Atlanta won the game 1-0 and the series four games to two. Glavine finished 2-0 with a 1.29 ERA and was the Series MVP.

Mazzone saw that toughness again when baseball tightened the strike zone in the late 1990s, taking away the area outside the plate where Greg Maddux and Glavine made their living. "He said, 'What are we going to do now?' I said, 'Let's walk more people.' But he wasn't going to give in," Mazzone says.

For the Mets, some of Glavine's worst starts have come during games against the Braves, although he was convinced this year that the turmoil of leaving Atlanta for New York had been put to rest. Before this season began, however, Atlanta GM John Schuerholz, who might be headed to the Hall of Fame himself someday, released an autobiography. This was not a tome in the David Wells scorched earth mode, but the fact that Schuerholz would write anything surprised a number of people in baseball.

But he wrote about a conversation he had with Glavine after the pitcher signed with the Mets in which Glavine said he was having second thoughts about coming to New York. He was angry when he read it and suggested earlier this year that Schuerholz was trying to explain to Braves fans that it wasn't his fault Glavine ended up in New York.

"I just didn't feel like it did me any good here or there," Glavine says. "I'm a firm believer in not burning any bridges.

"You just wonder why. The timing - he's still in the game."

But Glavine hasn't denied what Schuerholz wrote.

"I guess I had second thoughts for a lot of reasons," he says. "Buyer's remorse? You go through this process and get a deal done and then, 'Oh my God: what's this going to do to my wife? To my kids? To my family? Everybody flying all the time?'"

Glavine and his wife Chris, who have two children, both had children from a previous marriage who live in Atlanta. They couldn't just move their two boys to New York, although they and their siblings spend much of the summer here.

Chris, however, says she felt less hesitation.

After Glavine signed with the Mets, she went to a local store where she used to buy hats for the boys. "You know how fast they grow out of them. They knew all our sizes. I said, 'Give me all your Mets hats,'" she says, nodding to Jonathan and Peyton, who are both wearing Mets hat. "Never looked back."

Glavine says the kids handled the change far better than he and Chris did. "They were fine," he says. "In the end, they were fine, and I don't regret that I went through that process."

In his first year as a Met, the change did weigh on him, however. "The overwhelmingness of everything," he calls it. For the first time in his career he was the clear ace of a team, with a four-year, $42.5 million contract. It was similar to the pressure several top pitchers, including Al Leiter, have described after signing large contracts that established them as No. 1 starters.

"The first game in spring training I'm like, 'I've really got to prove myself,'" Glavine says.

Glavine was a two-time Cy Young winner, but he had been the No. 2 man on a staff with two other Cy Young winners (before John Smoltz went to the bullpen).

"It meant you had a certain relaxation level," he says. "You've got this guy and this guy; if I don't do it there's a chance that guy's going to pick me up."

The relaxation was gone. The routine he had enjoyed every season in Atlanta since 1987 was gone. What he wondered was whether his stuff was gone, too, although he says he was confident it wasn't. He spoke to Braves manager Bobby Cox, to Smoltz, to Yost, to Sandy Koufax, whom he had met through golfer Billy Andrade in 1994, and they all said the same thing.

"They all said we still see what we always saw," Glavine says. "And I knew how I felt. I felt good."

Then came the arrival of Pedro Martinez last season, a boost to Glavine for a couple of reasons.

One was the presence of another true ace to share the pressure. The other was Martinez's observation that Glavine was separating his hands more slowly than he used to during his delivery. "It was huge," Glavine says. The slow delivery was a sign that "I was too methodical and I started trying to guide the ball."

When the Mets played the Braves, Mazzone (now with the Baltimore Orioles) could see the same thing.

"When he pitched head-to-head against us he looked like he was in a little prevent defense," Mazzone says. "As a coach your eyes are trained to see his release, and he looked like he was trying to be a little too cautious."

By speeding up his delivery a little, Glavine was telling himself to be more aggressive as well. Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson also famously encouraged him to abandon his habit of pecking at the outside part of the plate with his fastball and changeup, to mix in more pitches and pitch inside more.

"It all helped," Glavine says.

And now he is 8-2, possibly headed for his 10th All-Star game, on the best team in the NL East.

While Glavine might have permitted passing doubts about his own future to enter his head, he insists that he never doubted the team would turn things around.

"I felt it from day one they were setting themselves up to do something in the winter and here I am in year four and we've got a good team," he says. "Sometimes things don't come easy."

Glavine finished the 2005 season with 275 wins, "and suddenly I thought getting to 300 wins was manageable," he says.

He won't handicap his chances for the Hall of Fame, although an informal survey of voting members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America suggests he's already in. He hasn't said what he will do next season, whether he will return to the Mets or look back to Atlanta or some other club. But he knows he is back on the course that was interrupted in the back of a New York City cab.

"Hopefully I'll get to 300," he says, "And that will end the discussion."