Craig Calcaterra: Tom Glavine: Skinny, sweating and scared

Before Tom Glavine was elected to the Hall of Fame earlier this month, Hall of Famers were Titans to me. Immortals. Super Heroes. They sprang from the head of Zeus or were sent here from some distant star and treated Earth as their plaything. They were superstars when I came to know who they were, their legend established — or mostly established — when they first thrust themselves into my consciousness.

The legends of Reggie Jackson, George Brett and Mike Schmidt were already firmly established among kids my age. They were the gold standard of what an active superstar was and what a future Hall of Famer looked like. Al Kaline was a god for anyone getting into baseball in Michigan in the late 70s. The first time I had ever heard of the Hall of Fame was the year Willie Mays was inducted and as I grew into a baseball fanatic new Hall of Famers were guys like Bob Gibson, Duke Snider, Hank Aaron and Juan Marichal. Each year another couple of big, big names who were big before I was born. 

As time went on there were a few marginal exceptions. Barry Larkin, Tony Gwynn, Roberto Alomar, Ryne Sandberg and Cal Ripken all began their Hall of Fame careers after I became addicted to baseball. But even they were first brought to my attention as stars. They were “hey, you have to see this guy,” guys mentioned on a baseball broadcast, written about in The Sporting News or represented by exciting numbers and a little gold Topps trophy on a baseball card. I knew to keep an eye on them. I did’t just discover them and watch them grow into stars.

But Tom Glavine was different. Tom Glavine was basically nobody when I first saw him pitch and, based on my first impression of him, I never expected much of anything from that guy. He was the first Hall of Famer whom I saw from his baseball birth. A very troubled baseball birth.

As I woke up on the morning of August 17, 1987 I was convinced that my Atlanta Braves — the team I had adopted upon moving to West Virginia in 1985 and still root for today — were hopeless. Unlike other teams who came up with players who had baseball cards with little gold trophies on them, the Braves simply weren’t producing good young talent. Dale Murphy looked to be on his way to Cooperstown, but they certainly had no one else who would ever be a Hall of Famer. Maybe they never would. Maybe they’d never even have an All-Star again. There was a kid in the minors named Kevin Coffman Braves fans were told to be excited about. Pete van Wieren mentioned a second baseman named Ron Gant that was interesting but whom we had not seen yet. Five days earlier the Braves had traded a veteran pitcher for a young prospect some Braves fans were optimistic about, but given that it was the Braves this John Smoltz dude would probably be a bust too.

So it was with Glavine. Who, on the day of August 17, 1987 — a Monday — was set to make his Major League debut. We were told by the TBS guys to pay attention, but come on. Stars played for the A’s and the Mets and the Dodgers. Not the Braves.

My family was on vacation in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina that day. The Braves were in Houston. I was tired and sunburned and just wanted to stay in the hotel room. The Braves and Astros were playing an odd Friday-Monday four-game series and the Monday getaway day game was an afternoon contest. The Braves and Astros were probably all tired too. I asked my mom if it was cool for me to hang back from the beach and pool and stuff to watch the game and she said it was fine. Mike Scott was pitching for Houston so, even if Atlanta got clobbered, it would be interesting. Mike Scott was a star.

This Glavine kid was something else. I was a kinda fat 14 year-old. He was a 21 year-old who may have weighed 97 pounds, by my estimation. I spent the first couple of innings wondering if I could actually take him in a fight if it ever came to that. I decided that I had a decent chance (of course when I made this decision I wasn’t aware that he had been drafted as a hockey player too).

But it wasn’t just about him being a skinny little thing. He looked scared. Rattled. To me it looked like he wanted to be anywhere in the world other than on that mound in the Astrodome. I vividly remember watching that game and feeling pity for Glavine as he tried — and constantly failed — to get weak outside pitches called as strikes. To make the Astros hitters chase and offer at his changeup. Early on a few took hacks and grounded out, but they quickly adjusted. The home plate ump was never going to give Glavine that outside corner and the Astros made him throw the ball over the heart of the plate. He paid for it dearly.

Glavine gave up two runs on singles and had Billy Hatcher — who was clearly in Glavine’s head from the get-go — steal a base on him in the first inning. He settled down and retired the side in order in the second, but then gave up a couple more in the third. By the time there were two out in the fourth he was down 6-0. It was the Astrodome so no one was hitting homers, but they were rapping solid singles and doubles all over the place and taking extra bases at will. While Glavine came to be known for his cold-as-ice demeanor and a reputation for looking calm and determined no matter what was happening, on August 17, 1987 his eyes were wide and in constant, agitated motion. He was sweating like a horse, too. 

Someone woke up Chuck Tanner by that point and had him go get Glavine. His day was done. I was happy it was, as it was getting hard to watch him clench his jaw in an effort to gain some composure. I turned off the TV a little while after that and went down to the pool, convinced that the Braves would never come up with a young player worth a damn. I’d still keep watching, though, because they were my team and you support your team, even if their prospects were garbage like this Glavine kid was. Even a bad team wins games sometimes and I liked to watch the Braves, occasionally, win a game.

Besides, the next day the Braves had a chance to win a game. They were back at home to face the Cubs and had their Opening Day starter, Rick Mahler, back on the hill. They did end up winning that game. I watched it in my hotel room that night. There was something satisfying about it too, in that the Cubs had a young pitcher get knocked around in mopup duty that night, so Glavine was not alone.

I wonder whatever happened to that skinny kid?

Craig is the lead writer for HardballTalk at NBC Sports.com. He lives in Ohio for some reason.

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    I wrote this.
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