COOPERSTOWN, NY — How could a kid who grew up on Treble Cove Road in Billerica get here? This isn’t supposed to happen. New England kids can’t play enough baseball compared with their counterparts from California, Florida, and Texas to ever get this good.
They can’t refine their pitching or their hitting. New England springs are too cruel. Too many rainouts. Too many mushy fields. Too cold. Too uncomfortable.
Tom Glavine, who will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame Sunday, never threw hard enough to smoke the radar guns. No 100 miles per hour. No high 90s. A few low 90s, however, as a super athlete at Billerica Memorial High School.
He might not have even been the best pitcher in Massachusetts in 1984; scouts flocked to watch Pete Smith at Burlington High.
“Tommy actually threw harder than people thought,” said Astros scout Paul Ricciarini, who was scouting Glavine for the Blue Jays at the time.
“Back then it was Tommy and Peter Smith, who could light up the guns, had the classic pitcher’s body. Because Billerica and Burlington were so close — and sometimes Burlington played under the lights — you could catch a couple of games in one day. Billerica also had a shortstop by the name of [future major league All-Star] Gary DiSarcina. So it was a fun time,” Ricciarini recalled.
In 1984, Ricciarini thought he had Glavine sewn up for the Blue Jays, who picked 19th in the second round, because Glavine’s radar readings didn’t justify a first-round pick. But the Braves snatched him right before Toronto.
“It was one of the rewards and one of the biggest frustrations of my scouting career,” Ricciarini said. “He was a joy to watch because he was such an athlete and while we didn’t know how good he would become and how he learned to set up hitters, you could see then that he had this incredible pitching IQ that you don’t see in a high school kid.
“The biggest question then was whether he was going to play hockey or baseball and maybe some teams were scared off, but baseball was always first with him.”
Smith was taken with the 21st pick of the first round by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1984. He later played seven years with Glavine after the Phillies traded Smith to Atlanta in 1985. Smith had an 11-year major league career. He went 47-71 with a 4.55 ERA.
Missing out on Glavine, the Blue Jays drafted righty Dane Johnson.
Glavine won 305 games. He played 22 years, 17 of them for the Braves, five for the Mets. The only injury of his career came in 2008 at age 42, an oblique strain in his final few months with Atlanta, where he returned for his final season.
“I don’t think I’d even be drafted now,” Glavine said. “I couldn’t throw mid 90s to 100. I wasn’t that type of pitcher. I think I would have been overlooked nowadays. I’m glad I wasn’t and I could prove myself, but I don’t fit the mold of the modern-day pitcher.”
Nor did his teammate, Greg Maddux, who will accept his Hall of Fame nomination with his former pitching mate and Braves manager Bobby Cox. Frank Thomas, Tony La Russa, and Joe Torre will also be inducted.
Glavine persevered because he was tough. He had that hockey players’ mentality on the mound. He was drafted in the fourth round by the Los Angeles Kings, the same year he was selected by the Braves.
Glavine often jokes, “[Wayne] Gretzky would have played on my line.”
“[Glavine] taught me that you can pitch when you’re not 100 percent,” Maddux said.
That Glavine and Maddux will go in the Hall together seems fitting — both were drafted in the second round in 1984 out of high school — Maddux out of Valley High in Las Vegas and Glavine out of Billerica.
Maddux was the 31st player taken in the draft (Red Sox manager John Farrell was taken right after him out of Oklahoma State by the Indians). Maddux wore No. 31 and Glavine, taken 47th overall, wore No. 47 throughout his career.
Both said the numbers were assigned to them when they hit the big leagues.
Glavine was never on the disabled list for a pitching ailment, but it didn’t mean he always felt great.
He was a master of manipulating the edges of the plate. He wasn’t much on video or scouting reports, he just knew his craft, the hitters, their tendencies, and where they liked the ball. He didn’t give in to them. He rarely made a mistake.
When Ques-Tec technology arrived, Glavine had to change his approach.
“For all the years I pitched, the strike zone went East-West, so you could work the corners of the plate. When Ques-Tec came along in 2001, it became a North-South strike zone. What I found was that I needed to learn to pitch inside more.”
He was an athlete on the mound, too.
He could hit — .244 for his career — and his four Silver Slugger awards are prominently displayed at his Alpharetta, Ga., home. He could play defense. Pressure was nothing to him. He was the MVP of the 1995 World Series, allowing one hit in eight innings in a 1-0 Game 6 clinching victory over the Indians.
Asked if that was his most memorable moment, he said, “There were were probably a few games where I felt I was technically sound, and that was one of them. So given the magnitude of the game and the situation, I’d have to say that was it.”
In that World Series, he won two games against the best hitting team in baseball. The Indians had a .291 batting average in the regular season, scored 840 runs, and hit 207 homers.
They had Kenny Lofton, Omar Vizquel, Carlos Baerga, Albert Belle, Eddie Murray, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, and Tony Pena.
Glavine won Game 2, 4-3, and all told in that World Series, he pitched 14 innings, giving up two runs (1.29 ERA) four hits, six walks, and 11 strikeouts.
He won two Cy Youngs, made 10 All-Star teams, and won 20 or more games five times. He pitched 200 or more innings in a season 14 times.
He allowed 10 hits in 3⅔ innings in his debut on Aug. 17, 1987. He walked five and gave up six runs in an 11-2 loss to the Astros. It went pretty well after that.
The good times ended in 2003, when Glavine and the Braves couldn’t reach a contract agreement. Glavine then signed a five-year, $50-million plus deal with the Mets.
“It was a tough couple of days,” recalled former Braves president Stan Kasten, who is the CEO and president of the Dodgers. “Tommy had made a verbal agreement with the Mets and he wanted to re-sign with us and we thought we had him back, but he couldn’t go back on his verbal agreement.”
Glavine said he has no regrets.
“When I got to New York, I enjoyed playing there,” Glavine said. “I made a lot of friends, enjoyed my teammates. I think everyone should play in New York for at least a year.”
Glavine spent Saturday playing golf with his sons at the Hall of Fame tournament.
“It’s just great seeing things through their eyes. Every time they see a Hall of Famer, I get knocked down a peg,” Glavine said. “I got to meet Carlton Fisk, and back where I’m from, that’s a big deal.”
His golf game was pleasantly interrupted by well-wishers from Billerica who made their way here for the ceremony.
“I live in Georgia, but I’m from Billerica,” Glavine said. “That’s my hometown and I’m proud to be from there. I’ve had so much support from so many people along the way. They were behind me in everything I did and I’ll always appreciate that. I always love going home.”
Which is something he never got to do at the major League level. There were trade rumors through the years of a possible swap between the Braves and Red Sox, but Kasten indicated none of the rumors were true.
The induction of Glavine and Maddux, and perhaps next season with Randy Johnson, will likely signal the end of the 300-game winners.
The high number of injuries to pitchers and the specialization of bullpens will likely lower win totals.
“With guys getting injured so much I think it will be tough,” Glavine said.
Glavine said he hasn’t allowed himself to look back at what he and Maddux did — until now.
“I guess we were pretty good,” Glavine said. “I used to love to watch how Greg would carve up opposing lineups. As a team, we competed so hard every year. We didn’t win as many [championships] as we had hoped, and in 1996 we let one slip away. But we had success. We had fun. And now, I guess, we’re getting rewarded.”Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.