2008 NEWS

2008 News > 3/6/08

BRAVES: FIVE THINGS TO KNOW

By Scott Miller, CBSSports.com

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Strike three from John Smoltz breaks over the plate and Tom Glavine never moves his bat. Glavine mutters something, Smoltz zings an insult back, the sun is shining, the jokes are flowing, Disney World is over there and here on the Atlanta Braves' practice field, it is a small world, after all.

Again.

Glavine is back where he belongs, in an Atlanta uniform, and the Georgia earth no longer seems to be tilted off of its axis.

"It's perfect," Atlanta manager Bobby Cox says. "I tell you, it looks like he never left.

"It's been five years. He's throwing great. Really well."

As Glavine stands there frozen for a fleeting moment after serving as batting practice dummy during Smoltz's semi-simulated game, preparation for the 2008 season continuing, the small group on the practice field breaks up into waves of laughter.

"I couldn't hit it anyway, so why bother swinging at it?" Glavine mutters, grinning weakly, leaving the batter's box.

But a few minutes later, his longtime rotation mate, golf partner and good buddy sitting a few feet down the dugout bench, Glavine returns volley.

"I knew you were working on stuff -- that's why I didn't swing," Glavine tells Smoltz. "If that was in a game. ..."

You figured he wouldn't miss a beat, that Glavine would step back into the Braves clubhouse as comfortably as a kid coming home from college for the summer moves back into his room.

You figured he and Smoltz would spend much of the spring teeing it up, both the witty insults and the daily golf times.

But as far as the notion that he's here on some sort of end-of-career, good-citizen scholarship program, forget it. Don't look for the Tom Glavine Nostalgia Tour T-shirts. You won't find them this summer at Turner Field.

"There is no such thing," Glavine says. "If I didn't think I could still pitch, and pitch effectively, I wouldn't still be playing.

"I think I can still pitch and help these guys."

When we last saw the Braves on a field, they were bidding farewell to their second consecutive playoff-less season. Dynasty finished.

When we last saw Glavine on a mound, his baseball world was collapsing and, by his own admission, it took him longer than usual to step out of the rubble. It was on the last day of last season, as the Mets were completing the greatest collapse in baseball history. Manager Willie Randolph gave Glavine the ball, needing a victory to keep the Mets' October hopes alive.

He never made it out of the first inning. On one of the most humiliating days of his baseball career, the Florida Marlins blasted Glavine for seven runs and five hits in one-third of an inning. The Mets were finished, their once seemingly comfortable seven-game lead over Philadelphia with 17 to play gone.

"It was hard for a lot of reasons," Glavine says. "It was the end of the year, it was the end of a bad run for us, what seemed to be an inevitable playoff position was dwindling away. It was a bad day personally, and what's going through your mind then is you feel somewhat responsible for everything that happened up to that point.

"There was the uncertainty of whether that was my last game ever, whether it was my last game in New York. If the answer to both was 'yes', it was going to be really hard. It wasn't the way I wanted my time in New York to end.

"I'm pretty good about not carrying stuff home and letting things bother me, but that bothered me. I lost some sleep for a few nights over it."

It was his third consecutive clunker. Five days earlier, he surrendered six runs in five innings during a crushing 10-9 loss to Washington. And five days before that, he was batted around for four runs and 11 hits in five innings during an 8-7 loss to the Marlins, another fatal blow to the collapsing Mets.

When he went home, he honestly didn't know whether he was finished. He took three weeks, a month with his family. He let his emotions settle. He weighed family time against baseball time, trying to gauge whether he again could balance his enjoyment of each.

"I made the decision to play, but it had to be here or nowhere," says Glavine, who retained his permanent residence in Alpharetta, Ga., even while playing for the Mets.

Among the reasons: His two older children, son Jonathan and daughter Amber (both 13) remember his Atlanta playing days. His two younger sons, Peyton (8) and Mason (7), don't.

"The kids can be a part of it," he says. "In the summer, they can come to the ballpark every day if they want to, especially the two younger boys. They only know me as a Met. It will be fun for them to see their dad with the hometown team, share in that with me, at school, stuff like that."

The Braves, short on dependable, established starting pitchers and knowing Glavine's price tag wasn't as exorbitant as it once was, jumped at the chance, signing him to a one-year, $8 million deal last Nov. 19.

"It's been nice having him back," first-year Atlanta general manager Frank Wren says. "It's nice having everything that he brings, his leadership and his ability."

Much has changed around here in the five years he was in New York.

The Braves' run of division titles came to a crashing halt. Pitching coach Leo Mazzone not only is long gone, but he was fired from his next job -- Baltimore -- and he's sitting on the sidelines, unemployed. Only Cox, Smoltz and Chipper Jones remain from Glavine's first tour of duty here from 1987 through 2002.

Still, Glavine fits into his Braves uniform the way chicken and noodles belong in soup.

"I'd say 90 percent of the free world probably believes that," Jones says. "Unfortunately, it's one year too late for him to win his 300th here."

Glavine is 42 now and, if his ticket wasn't already punched for the Hall of Fame, it was last Aug. 5, when he became only the 23rd pitcher in baseball history to win his 300th game. Ever thoughtful and honest -- "Sure," he replied when I ask if he wishes he had won his 300th in a Braves uniform. "But there's a point where there's not a lot you can do about it." -- Glavine also remains exceptionally competitive and savvy.

But can he still pitch? At least, effectively enough to help return the Braves' glory days?

Given the rocky way '07 ended, it's a fair question.

And Glavine has a ready answer, pointing out that his 4.45 ERA last summer was his highest since 1988, his first full season in the big leagues. Glavine quickly counters with another statistic: He ranked fifth in the NL with 20 quality starts (six or more innings pitched, three or fewer earned runs).

"I had, in my mind, a good year, and a pretty consistent year," Glavine says. "My numbers, especially my ERA, were skewed because of those last three starts. Those last three starts were probably my worst of the year. But for me, you look at the body of work."

That body of work includes testaments from opposing hitters.

"He's still a master craftsman," says Jones, glad to cross Glavine off of the list of enemy pitchers he'll face this year. "He can carve guys up anytime he wants. It's pretty incredible watching him get people out.

"I'm glad I don't have to bat against him anymore. It's always a frustrating AB."

Two lockers over, another familiar face smiles in agreement.

"I'm excited he's back because it gives us a better chance to win," Smoltz says. "The other reason is obvious. He and I have been together forever. We were here when we were in the playoffs every year.

"That's why I'm excited: He gives us an added element to possibly regain some of the things we've lost."

Yes, wouldn't it be quite the homecoming if Glavine isn't the only one who regains some of what he lost this summer?