To Glavine, 300 a special number
A remarkable milestone in the career of a remarkable lefty
NEW YORK -- Rare were the occasions last summer when 300 was a number Tom Glavine preferred to discuss or ponder. By his own decree, the number had a subordinate place in his life at the time. He neither had bowled a 300 game nor batted .300. And 300 had no significance in golf and hockey, his other sporting passions. The Glavines didn't drive a Chrysler 300, knew nothing of the pending release of the movie "300" and less about the novel by Frank Miller that was the basis for the movie.
The number was there, though, undeniably prominent on his personal horizon, followed by two words that gave it historical context -- career victories. To him, the number was there to be ignored whenever possible. First things first, Glavine would say. The 290s were there, like a mental moat. "When I get to 290 ..." he would say.
Only when his victories total was 10 shy would he take the next logical, round-number step and think 300 without a sense of being premature and presumptuous. And, truth be told, if he could have attained 299 victories in private, away from the glare that career achievements in baseball often create, he would have opted for that.
"But I found out you really can't sneak up on it," Glavine said in Spring Training, five months after his 290th victory had eliminated the moat.
Now, he need not hold back, edit his thoughts or censor his words. A modest, unassuming man, can beat his chest because he has beaten big-league teams 300 times.
And now, after an unsettling pause in June that prompted him to order a moratorium on discussion of the topic and an unrewarding recent evening in Los Angeles, 300 is almost part of Glavine's official baseball identity, a component in his baseball DNA.
The thought no longer is premature; it is fact. The number now is more a part of his baseball identity than the No. 47 he has worn on his back since 1987.
Glavine emerged from the Mets' 8-3 victory in Chicago on Sunday night as the winning pitcher and a 300-game winner, the 23rd in the long history of the game.
The victory, so special in a game that embraces its history and round numbers, doesn't change the fundamental nature of the man or his career. But had Glavine, a hockey maven, not reached 300 after getting so close, it would've been tantamount to winning the NHL championship and not touching the Stanley Cup.
Now he is a touchstone in baseball history. Almost any mention of Glavine now will include the term "300-game winner." He no longer is on the cusp. And if he is on the threshold of anything now, it is the Hall of Fame. The 300 victories is the pass he probably didn't need.
Each of the 22 pitchers who preceded him to 300 is enshrined in Cooperstown.
Now all Glavine needs is time. Five years after his retirement, he will be on the HOF ballot. No one could be surprised -- and who could be offended? -- if, by the summer of 2013, the Hall has commissioned a plaque with his likeness and career highlights on it.
Glavine hasn't yet decided that this will be his final season, but falling short of 300, he has said, was the only surefire impetus for him to pitch in 2008. And now that possibility has been eliminated.
"Barring something crazy [and] assuming I have a good year and I win 300 games ... I'm not going to sit here and say that I won't play [in 2008]," he said in March. "But it would take an awful lot for me to play next year, and I don't mean monetarily. I just mean it would really have to be some unfinished business or some tremendous burning desire for me to go out there and play another year at this point."
The game holds almost no remaining challenges for him. He has been a World Series champion, though not as many times as seemed possible. He has been involved in the game's ultimate standoff four other times and has pitched for a first-place team 12 times, 11 times with the Braves, once with the Mets. A 13th instance is a distinct possibility.
He is a five-time 20-game winner and two-time Cy Young Award winner, not to mention two runner-up finishes and two third-place finishes. He is widely regarded as the ultimate professional, a pitcher who put smarts and technique before velocity and prospered as few others have. And now he is at 300.
With Randy Johnson's back stealing miles per hour from his fastball and opportunities from his future, there is compelling reason to believe Glavine will the final pitcher to reach that figure.
|"I know how exclusive this is."|
|-- Tom Glavine, on the 300-win club|
Whether others follow is immaterial, though. "Pitchers with 300 victories" is bound to be a most select grouping in the game's pantheon of round-number career achievements. Craig Biggio's 5-for-6 night in June made him the 26th player with at least 3,000 hits, and though Frank Thomas became only the 21st player to hit 500 home runs, Alex Rodriquez soon became No. 22, with Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome and Gary Sheffield on deck.
"I know how exclusive this is," Glavine says, "and how. ... cool it will be to be part of it."
He never thought about 300, he says, until he reached 250. "But from the time you start to learn about the history of the game, you develop a sense of what personal achievements are really special," he said. "And [winning] 300 games is right up there."
His winning 300 times never was a given or even a likely, not even when Glavine was knocking off an average of 17 victories per season with the Braves from 1989 through 2002. That left him 58 victories short of 300 and without the Braves' championship assembly line working in his behalf.
Three seasons with the Mets that increased his total by only 33 had passed before Glavine's second team achieved a first-place finish and before his own rate of production returned to a more Cooperstown-type level.
His 2006 renaissance produced 15 victories (and 24 team victories in his 32 starts), leaving him 10 short and pretty sure he'd complete the mission this summer.
Glavine knows he might have reached 300 last season had he re-signed with the Braves after 2002. He also knows the adoption of QuesTec and the absence of the strike zone he, Greg Maddux, Leo Mazzone and others worked so hard to expand undermined him as much as -- if not more than -- it undermined any other pitcher. Maddux expanded the strike zone, too, but not to the degree Glavine did. And Maddux occasionally would throw a pitch over the plate. When Glavine did, he hadn't executed the pitch properly.
"Maybe I would be retired by now if I'd stayed [with the Braves] and they didn't bring [QuesTec] into the game," Glavine said in Spring Training. "But I would have missed what [the Mets] did last year. There are tradeoffs."
Now at age 41, he has reached 300 victories and has a chance to pitch in a second straight postseason for the franchise that wooed him away from his original employer.
"I'm proud of what I've done, what we've done here," Glavine says.
He had second thoughts about coming to the Mets and, as Braves general manager John Schuerholz wrote in his book, Glavine even took steps to return to the Braves after the Mets had announced an agreement. No contract had been signed. And had the Braves made any reasonable offer last fall, Glavine probably would have returned to the Braves.
Who knows? Had that happened, perhaps he would still would be in the mid-290s.
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Glavine has reached 300 as the ultimate crafty left-hander, the uncompromising pitcher who never gives in to the batter, seldom gives in to the umpire and needed a heaping helping of adversity before he would give in to his own pitching coach.
"What made him a great pitcher with us early on is part of what made it hard for him to adjust," Bobby Cox said in May. "He's pretty strong-willed."
The Braves manager thinks primarily of the eight shutout innings Glavine shoved down the throats of the Indians in the decisive Game 6 of the 1995 World Series.
"You wanna talk about will?" Cox said.
By the summer of 2005, Glavine's New England stubbornness, the electronically-less liberal strike zone and National League batters had made 300 victories appear to be on a more distant horizon. But Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson, as relentless as his pupil, finally persuaded Glavine to throw inside more and throw a breaking ball occasionally.
A master of analogy, Peterson asked the golfer in Glavine whether he would play a round with two clubs. As bright as he is unyielding, Glavine got the message. Since the beginning of 2006, he has won 44 percent of his starts and 65 percent of his decisions. In his first three seasons with the Mets, he won one-third of his starts and 45 percent of his decisions.
"Obviously, that's been a major change for me," Glavine said.
Peterson is quite high on his acknowledgement list.
Glavine's New England upbringing (his father, Fred, was a construction worker who seldom missed a day on the job) has served him well too, particularly early in his career when he could have deferred to injury. He overcame a torn rotator cuff -- he won 22 games despite it in 1993, broken ribs which he believes cost him the Cy Young Award a year earlier, an accident that cost him his two front teeth and, last year, cold fingertips and a blood clot scare.
He has missed a start here and there, but he never has been assigned to the disabled list, is mostly unfamiliar with the trainer's room and is as proud of his 659 starts, the 14th-most in history, as he is of his 300 victories. So are Fred and his wife, Mildred.
Their boy is right there on so many all-time lists with another left-handed pitcher familiar to New England and the Braves -- "Mr. Spahn," as Glavine identified the Hall of Famer last year.
Glavine is not going to approach Warren Spahn's 363 victories, the most by a left-handed pitcher, or even Steve Carlton's 329. But most of his career has overlapped with the era of incomplete games when victories and losses have been harder to come by for a starter. No matter, he is quite content with life on the cusp, so long as it continues to move forward.
* * *
On the cusp seldom is a comfortable position these days of 24/7 news and countless news outlets and Web sites pretending to be outlets. Anticipation becomes a burden -- and, at times, an obstacle -- for residents of the cusp. A pending milestone becomes a millstone. The most routine development is seen through the prism of anticipation and assigned greater significance than it deserves.
So it was that each out Glavine achieves is not a step toward victory that day, but a leap in the direction of Cooperstown.
Twenty summers removed from his first victory, and perhaps only months removed from his final changeup, he never looked at how close he was to 300 but how much he needed to reach the figure. Fred Glavine taught his boy to be thorough, to keep his eye on the ball. It wasn't time to celebrate in this already-celebrated career.
Like any construction worker, Glavine had a vision of the finished product. He sheepishly admits he has peeked ahead, just as he acknowledges he already has a sense of what he wants to say in a Hall of Fame induction speech.
He still consults his blueprint for 300 -- changeups away, an occasional fastball inside and never give in to the batter. It's worked so far.
Now, with 300 in his long resume, he need not be sheepish anymore. And he can start writing the speech.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.