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The dizzying intellect of Tom Glavine

Jul 23, 2014, 12:16 PM EDT

Articles about new Hall of Famers probably should not begin with personal stories, but back in 1991, when I was 24 years old, I found myself panicked in the Atlanta Braves clubhouse. Every sportswriter, I suspect, has a story about their first time in a professional clubhouse or locker room. That’s a scary place for a rookie writer. The clubhouse is a place where a writer is allowed but not necessarily welcome, a place where a writer is grudgingly allowed to observe (up to a point), but it is made perfectly clear that the writer does not belong.

Anyway, I was standing there, trying to figure out what to do, and I can only imagine how out of place I looked. The Braves had caught us all by surprise. Back then I worked at The Augusta Chronicle, 120 or so miles away, and the one thing that seemed sure was that I would not be writing any baseball. The Braves had lost 97 games the year before, 97 the year before that and 106 the years before that. It was during that stretch that an Atlanta newspaper asked readers to send in catchy Braves slogans, and one of those readers earned eternal fame by coining: “Atlanta Braves baseball: Better than getting hit in the head with a hammer, unless it’s a doubleheader.”

The 1991 Braves were a .500 team on July 4, a mildly surprising but generally uninteresting fact, and they plodded along for a little longer, and a little longer, and in early August they were 10 games over .500. On Aug. 27 they moved into a first-place tie with the Dodgers. I cannot even begin to relate how certain everyone was that the Braves would fall apart, but somehow, they did not (and would not for a dozen years). The winning was persistent enough that finally my sports editor sent me to write my first Major League Baseball game. I was insanely nervous, and utterly clueless, and then I found myself in the clubhouse after a victory with no idea whatsoever what I was supposed to do next. I felt a hand on my shoulder.

[MORE: Glavine, Maddux, Thomas headed to Cooperstown]

“You look lost,” Tom Glavine said.

“Um, well, no, I’m from the Augusta Chronicle and, um, I’m supposed to, um, write a story.”

“Yeah, I figured that,” Glavine said. “Come over to my locker, I’ll help you with your story.”

I don’t know that the conversation was quite that decipherable. I’m sure I did a lot more hemming and hawing. And I’m not sure that Glavine said those exact words. But both points were expressed. I was panicked, and he had chosen to help. I followed Glavine to his locker, he told me all about the Braves season and I wrote a story. And I have never forgotten the kindness.

So, I claim no objectivity when it comes to Glavine’s awesomeness. I have always viewed Glavine’s career through that prism — the guy who saved me when I was young. It’s funny because, looking back, he was young, too. He was not even a year older than me. He was not much bigger than me. But worlds separated us. Glavine was having his breakout season — he would win his first of two Cy Young Awards.

[Calcaterra: Glavine — Skinny, sweating and scared]

What’s easy to miss is that Glavine, for most of his career, was a power pitcher. It’s easy to miss because, compared to other stars of his time, Glavine did not strike out a lot of hitters. Also he grew famous for the circle change-up that he perfected.

But especially early in his career, Glavine threw his fastball in the low-to-mid 90s, he had a hard slider he could mix in with a curveball and he was great athlete (he was taken in the fourth round of the NHL Entry Draft). The reason he did not strike out that many (among 300 game winners, only Early Wynn had a lower strikeout-to-walk ratio) was because strikeouts were not his thing.

What was his thing? Well … remember the “Battle of wits” scene in “The Princess Bride?”

“But it’s so simple – all I have to do is divine from what I know of you. Are you the sort of man who would put the poison into his own goblet or his enemy’s? Now, a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet because he would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. I am not a great fool, so I clearly cannot choose the wine in front of you. But you must have known I was not a great fool. You would have counted on it. So I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.”

That, in a beautiful and hilarious paragraph, was Tom Glavine’s pitching style. His poison was simply this: He intended to get the hitter to swing a pitch at the knees and three inches outside the strike zone. The only question was how he was going to do it. The battle of wits had begun!

[MORE: Glavine’s reaction to Hall call]

One way Glavine might do this was to throw every single pitch at the knees and three inches outside the strike zone. It certainly seemed that entire games went by when Glavine did not throw even one strike. This strategy — the “look, eventually the hitter has to swing” strategy — was brutally effective.*

*This was especially effective — anti-Braves fans will tell you — because many of those Glavine pitches three inches outside of the strike zone were actually called strikes by accommodating umpires. This is certainly sour grapes up to a point. But it will be interesting to see if Glavine, among his Hall of Fame speech thank yous, throws one out there to the home-plate umpires.

Another of Glavine’s strategies was to throw the exact pitch that he should not throw. The great Tony Gwynn used to say that one of his great pleasures was matching up against Glavine because he knew that anything was on the table. A 2-0 change-up? Maybe. A down-the-middle fastball at 0-2? Possible. A slider in a fastball count, a fastball in a change-up count, a 3-2 pitch at the knees and three inches outside? You bet. With others, Gwynn more or less knew what was coming because he had studied them so intently. With Glavine, though Gwynn had studied him even more, his best strategy was to expect PRECISELY what he did not expect. That made for some epic matchups.

Another Glavine strategy was to get ahead in the count. That’s obvious, but it was a near religion with Glavine. First-pitch strikes (even if it meant throwing his low-and-outside fastball that looked better than it was and getting a foul ball) were everything. So Glavine threw A LOT of fastballs. The circle change was often his best pitch — it was undetectable, and it moved so much that it was all but impossible to hit solidly — but Glavine knew like all great things it would lose some of its wonder if used too much.

“If I throw 100 pitches in a game,” he told Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci back in 1997, “I’ll probably throw as many as 70 fastballs. … Too many guys pitch backward. They throw their breaking ball so much that it’s almost like their fastball is their off-speed pitch.”

Glavine won two Cy Young Awards and finished Top 3 another four times. He won 305 games and another 14 in the postseason. He made exactly 400 starts between 1991 and 2002 and averaged 224 innings per season, and in that time the Braves won with a sort of bland consistency that marks them as one of baseball’s great teams.

And the thing was that in all those years, hitters never quite caught up to him. They never quite figured him out. They didn’t understand that, just like in the Princess Bride, there was nothing to figure out, that they had no chance to win the battle of wits. The Dread Pirate Roberts built up an immunity to iocane powder. The Dread Brave Glavine had done pretty much the same thing.

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