Saturday, August 7, 2010

Retiring Number 47


Portrait of Tommy Glavine by Steve Penley. Presented to Glavine as part of his number retirement ceremony.

I am a Tom Glavine fan. I well remember his first full season in the major leagues. It was 1988. He went 7 - 17 with 4.56 ERA. Those 17 losses were tops in the major leagues and were part of a pitifully bad Braves team that went 54 - 106 that year. Hardly impressive. But, I liked his tenacity. I liked the fact that he was not a "fastball" type pitcher. He had a pretty good change-up. He was a "location" pitcher. He was good at painting the corners of the plate for strikes and kept hitters off stride by keeping the ball out of the middle of the plate. Well, now and then he was that way those first couple of seasons. Unrefined, but I saw potential. And I always like to root for promising rookies. That's one of the things about baseball I enjoy the most. Watching rookies develop.

Tom Glavine certainly developed. In 1989, again for a last-place Braves team, he went 14 - 8 with a respectable 3.68 ERA. It was fun to watch and listen (during my life I have experienced more Braves games on the radio than on TV, and still do today) to him every time he started. By July that was about all I was paying attention to in that sorry season. One of many losing seasons in those desert-like years for Braves fans.

All the patience and coaching and work paid off in 1991. Glavine won 20 games (the most of any pitcher in the National League that season) for the "worst-to-first" Braves team against 8 losses and a great 2.76 ERA. His career had really taken off and the Braves went to the World Series for the first time since 1958.

I like players who are gutsy, who don't necessarily have incredible pitching stuff or batting power. They are forced to play the game with determination and intelligence. Gritty players who don't rack up a ton of K's or HR's have always struck me as being what baseball is all about at its core. A game where potential and ability comes in all shapes and sizes. A game where you don't have to always look spectacular to be a hero.

For much of my adult life Tom Glavine was my ultimate baseball hero. In the 1970's I briefly rooted for Buzz Capra but he didn't work out except for one splendid season in 1974. My first baseball hero was Woody Woodward, the mediocre second baseman for the Braves in the 1960's (they put me in at second base in my T-ball era so I think playing - if you can call it that - that position as kid and as I became conscious of being a Braves fan had a lot to do with that youthful choice). I have always hoped for a showing of greatness where it was not really expected. That, for me, is the highest baseball high as a fan.

It was all realized with Tom Glavine, more than any other player I've ever followed. He won the Cy Young Award twice, was a repeat 20-game winner, and eventually reached that pinnacle of starting pitching, over 300 career wins (even it was in a New York Mets uniform, Glavine will always be a Brave to me). He was a solid part of perhaps the last great pitching trio in baseball history while playing over a decade with Hall-of-Fame caliber teammates Greg Maddux and John Smoltz. Plus, Glavine could help himself with the bat. He won four silver slugger awards. He laid down more sacrifice bunts than any player in baseball history. A little known fact.

Keeping three pitchers on the same team like that (complemented by several other very good pitchers through the years as well, my daughter is named after one of those) probably won't ever happen again. It is just not the way the business climate of baseball is evolving. Players just don't stay with teams for 10 years much anymore and certainly not three great pitchers. They're just too expensive to keep and money usually talks in the business of baseball entertainment. I've posted before how the game has become "entertainment" to the degree that the "sport" of it is greatly diminished.

Anyway, last night they retired Tom Glavine's number, 47, at Turner Field. He's up there with other Braves greats like Warren Spahn, Hank Aaron (who was announced during last night's ceremonies as "the greatest home run king of all time" a wonderful direct slap at one of my least favorite players, Barry Wussie-assed Bonds), and Phil Niekro. (Read long-time Atlanta sports journalist Furman Bisher's column about Glavine's retirement here.)

The thing that struck me the most about watching the ceremony on TV was how old Glavine looks. The wrinkles in his face. The graying hair. He's supposed to be this kid. He's supposed to look youthful and, even though he was always poker-faced and controlled, unphased by anything positive or negative, out there on the mound, he's supposed to have an air of exuberance about him. Last night he just looked humbled and speechless, but certainly grateful. Still, he's younger than I am and I certainly don't feel as old as he looked.

But, time passes. 22 seasons go by and a player grows from a struggling rookie to a superstar of the game. Then he is suddenly honored for what has been, never again for what is in the Now; not like that anyway. You have to be careful here. There is a danger of living in the past instead of simply appreciating it and moving on with the present. Because, no matter how great you were or no matter how unheard of you were, there's plenty of things happening in the Now that require each person's attention.

If there is a sentimental foundation for the retiring of number 47 it lies, for me, right there. I appreciate so much of what has happened in my life. I am so fortunate to have been a Braves fan and to have lived in a time when the Braves featured one of the greatest lefthanded pitchers in baseball history. But, that can't be enough. It's over and time to move on.

I have no problem living in the present (other than the fact that the Braves gave away a game to the Giants last night). The retirement ceremony last night was like a mini-vacation. I could step out of whatever is happening now and even step out of the intense pennant race shaping up for the Braves this season. Instead, I stepped back to October 28, 1995. Tom Glavine fired a one-hitter through 8 innings against the best offensive team in baseball at the time, the Cleveland Indians, who batted an astounding .291 as a team that season. With that pitching performance the Braves won Game Six of the 1995 World Series 1-0. Glavine gave the Atlanta Braves their only World Championship to date (thanks to a solo home run by David Justice) and only the third such championship in the history of the Braves franchise. We were all younger then. And the baseball fan in me was on top of the world.

Atta boy Tommy.

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