The beauty of the Braves in the early ’90s was that there was no one guy, but Tom Glavine was first among equals. He’d been a true pro at a time when this club was essentially Amateur Hour. He didn’t just show up when the going got good. He was here, as he famously said, when “it was 95 degrees and we were 20 games under .500 and there were 5,000 people in the stands.”
He was the guy who got Chuck Tanner fired. On a Friday night in Pittsburgh — the date was May 20, 1988 — the sunny-side-up manager let the kid pitcher absorb a frightful beating: Seven hits and six walks and seven earned runs in 3 1/3 innings. Two nights later, a general manager who had staked everything on the care and feeding of young pitchers fired Tanner and replaced him with Russ Nixon.
On another Friday more than 22 years later, Glavine had his No. 47 retired and was inducted into the Braves’ Hall of Fame. And Pete Van Wieren, who broadcast the first and last games Glavine worked and most of those in between, thought of Nixon.
It was early in Glavine’s big-league career and Braves insiders were worried he didn’t strike anybody out, and after another loss — Glavine would lose 17 times in 1988 — a few such folks had gathered in a hotel bar and one asked, “Why can’t we ever find one of those guys who throws 95 mph?”
And Nixon, who sugarcoated nothing, said: “Don’t worry about Glavine. He’ll be fine.”
Some players are too talented to fail. Glavine was too smart. He kept plugging away until, one day in spring training at West Palm Beach, he found that if he applied a different sort of finger pressure to the standard-issue circle change, his offspeed pitch would sit up and do tricks. That change-up would become his ticket to Cooperstown.
He won his first Cy Young Award the year the Braves went from worst to first. He beat Colorado in the 162nd game of 1993 to clinch a tie in the last great division race. (No wild cards then.) He wasn’t half as gifted as John Smoltz or Steve Avery, and he didn’t possess quite the maestro’s mystique of Greg Maddux, but Thomas Michael Glavine was the guy who deserved to toe the slab on the night of Oct. 28, 1995, the night the Atlanta Braves became world champions.
He worked eight innings. He yielded one hit. (Bloop single to Tony Pena in the sixth.) He won a game 1-0 against the best-hitting club of the era, and he was voted World Series MVP for his work. He was, as Van Wieren said Friday, “the right man in the right game.”
A year ago the Braves retired Maddux’s No. 31 and we were regaled by tales of the Mad Dog. I asked Bobby Cox, who was the GM who fired Tanner, if he had a Glavine story. He thought for a while and said, “There really aren’t any Glavine stories. He was just a solid guy.”
I asked Mark Lemke and he said: “I remember him knocking on my door when I was in rookie ball at Bradenton and saying, ‘I’m the new guy.’” Then the Lemmer said, shrugging: “Not really a great story, is it?”
There was no flair to Glavine. He didn’t even have a nickname, unless you count “Glav,” which you shouldn’t. He started every game with a backup stick of sugarless gum in his pocket. He won 305 games with that self-taught change-up and an inherent stubbornness.
Larry Dierker, once a pitcher himself, offered the best description of the two canny Braves: “Maddux would rather give you something to hit than walk you. Glavine would rather walk you than give you something to hit.”
No, he wasn’t Sandy Koufax. But you know what? Tom Glavine won nearly twice as many games throwing a fastball that topped out at 91 mph with a hurricane at his back. On Friday he entered one Hall of Fame, and another will come calling soon enough. And the best part of the rain-delayed ceremony at Turner Field was this:
The unflappable Tom Glavine appeared near tears from start to finish. “I’m in awe,” he said. Awed for the first time in his life.