Living on the Black

Two Pitchers, Two Teams, One Season to Remember


By John Feinstein

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Pitchers are the heart of baseball, and John Feinstein tells the story of the game today through one season and two great pitchers working in the crucible of the New York media market. Tom Glavine and Mike Mussina have seen it all in the Major Leagues and both entered 2007 in search of individual milestones and one more shot at The World Series-Glavine with the Mets, Mussina five miles away with the Yankees. The two veterans experience very different seasons — one on a team dealing with the pressure to get to a World Series for the first time in seven years, the other with a team expected to be there every year.

Taking the reader through contract negotiations, spring training, the ups of wins and losses, and the people in their lives-family, managers, pitching coaches, agents, catchers, other pitchers — John Feinstein provides a true insider’s look at the pressure cooker of sports at the highest level.


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The Gifted Lefty

IF YOU HAVE ATTENDED A BASEBALL GAME at Yankee Stadium at any time during the past fifty-five years, you have heard the voice of Bob Sheppard, who has been the public address announcer there since 1951. No one introduces a starting lineup quite like Sheppard, who for years taught diction at St. John's University.

In deep, sonorous tones, Sheppard, who turned ninety-seven during the 2007 season, introduces each player in a booming, deliberate voice: "And pitching for the Yankees… Number thirty-five… Mike Mussina… Number thirty-five."

There are none of the theatrics that many of today's PA announcers make a part of their act. Sheppard isn't acting. He's just informing, in remarkably clear, perfectly pronounced English.

It is different at Shea Stadium, where the Mets PA announcer Alex Anthony has only been on the job for a few years. Sheppard had been on the job in the Bronx for eleven years by the time the Mets played their first game as a team, and Anthony doesn't even introduce the players. He simply says, "Batting ninth, the pitcher…" and at that point the player in question will appear on the Diamond Vision screen behind the left-field fence, smile, and tell the fans his name and his hometown.

When Tom Glavine is introduced, he smiles for the camera and says, "Tom Glavine, Billerica, Massachusetts."

What he actually says is "Bill-uh-rica," which is different from the way most people say it. They say "Bill-rica," leaving out the uh. "That's the short way," Glavine says with a laugh. "If you're a true Billerican, you say it with the uh."

Glavine is a true Billerican. The town is located about twenty-five miles northwest of Boston, a classic New England community of about thirty-seven thousand people. Glavine likes to point out that when it snows, which is often, Billerica looks like something straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting.

Tom's parents, Fred and Mildred Glavine, met there while in high school. Fred was a star athlete, playing football, basketball, and baseball. A superb football player, he would later tell his sons to stay away from the game because of the injuries that continued to plague him as he got older.

After he got out of the military, Fred Glavine started a construction business with one of his brothers, building pools and laying foundations for homes. Tom worked for him for several summers and came away from the experience with great respect for what his father did and no desire to follow in his footsteps.

From a very early age it was apparent that Tom was a gifted athlete. All the Glavine kids were good athletes, but Tom always ended up competing with older kids because of his talent.

"I remember when I was ten, I was playing on Little League teams with twelve-year-olds," he said. "I wasn't all that big, but I could throw hard when I pitched, and I never felt out of place competing with older guys."

All three Glavine boys played baseball and hockey. As passionate as most New Englanders are about the Red Sox, hockey is the sport almost every kid plays growing up. "You usually start out skating on an outdoor pond somewhere when you're very young, and by the time you're four or five you're comfortable on skates," Glavine remembered. "When I was young, hockey was definitely my number one sport and my first love. Baseball came later."

Glavine's interests were like those of most boys growing up in Billerica: he rooted fanatically for the Red Sox and the Bruins and liked the Patriots and the Celtics. "It was more the Red Sox and the Bruins," he said. "I never really got into basketball, and my dad wouldn't let me play football. Plus, the Patriots weren't very good back then. Now, it's different."

Several times a year, Fred and Millie Glavine would take the family to see the Red Sox or the Bruins. Glavine remembers sitting in the right-field seats at Fenway Park watching Dwight Evans, one of the better right fielders of the 1970s. "When I played the outfield, I always imitated the way he caught the ball and got into position to make a throw," he said. "I was old enough [nine] to remember the '75 World Series. I remember [Carlton] Fisk's home run, but I also remember feeling crushed when they lost the seventh game."

Glavine was a pitcher and a center fielder in baseball and a center in hockey. By the time he was in high school, he was a local star and he was starting to draw attention from college coaches and scouts in both sports. "More hockey though," he said. "I would say ninety percent of the letters I got from coaches my junior year were for hockey. I was a more polished hockey player than I was a pitcher, which isn't surprising because most pitchers aren't very polished when they're sixteen. My thinking at the time was that I wanted a college scholarship, and my best bet was hockey. If I could go someplace and play both sports, that would be ideal. Turning pro after high school wasn't really on my mind at all."

College made sense for a number of reasons. For one thing, Glavine was an excellent student. His grade point average floated between about 3.8 and 3.9, and, in a high school with about 550 students in each grade, he usually ranked in the top sixty in the class, eventually graduating fifty-eighth in a class of 558.

It was during his junior year that Glavine decided exactly what he wanted to do after high school: go to Harvard. A friend of his had a brother who was playing hockey at Harvard, and one day he took Tom to a game. Glavine loved the campus, loved the atmosphere at the game, and loved the idea that this was Harvard and decided that playing hockey at Harvard was what he wanted to do — even though it meant he would have to apply for financial aid, and his parents would have to pay at least part of his tuition.

"My parents were all for it," he said. "I mean, come on, it was Harvard."

Bill Cleary, the longtime Harvard hockey coach, loved Glavine's game. He was a slick center with great quickness and passing skills. And he was a good student. There was just one catch: the SATs.

"I simply could not do well on them," Glavine said. "I can't even tell you why. I was just a complete disaster."

Disaster is a relative word. The first time Glavine took the boards as a high school junior, he scored 1100. Almost any college in America would kill to have a star athlete with a 3.8 GPA and 1100 on the boards. Harvard is, needless to say, not most schools. Cleary was allowed to recruit one player each year with under 1200 on the boards. (One more than longtime Harvard basketball coach Frank Sullivan was ever allowed.) Glavine spent the summer between his junior and senior years being tutored on how to take the SATs. He took the test twice more. "Best I could do was eleven fifty," he said. "To this day, I can't tell you why I couldn't do better."

After Glavine had taken the SATs for the last time, Cleary called him. "I'd love to have you," he said. "But I've only got one exception, and I'm desperate for a defenseman, so I'm going to give it to Don Sweeney."

As it turned out, Cleary knew what he was doing: Sweeney played in the National Hockey League for fifteen years. Glavine, the Harvard dream gone, had to go to plan B. The problem was he didn't really have a plan B.

"I was still thinking more about hockey than baseball," he said. "But by then I was starting to get a lot of attention for baseball too."

Glavine had started to notice the scouts behind home plate during his junior year. They were easy to spot because they all came equipped with radar guns that they pointed at him each time he went into his windup. When Tom was older, Fred Glavine told his son that he had first started seeing scouts at his games as early as the eighth grade but never said anything because he didn't want Tom to get a swelled head or to think he was better than he was. When he first spotted the radar guns, Glavine reacted like any teenager might be expected to react: "I tried to throw harder," he said. "I wanted to impress them. After a while I just got used to the fact that they were there."

Glavine also benefited from the fact that he had a coach who recognized his potential and protected his arm. Jon Sidorovich never pitched his star on short rest, never let him pitch more than nine innings, and resisted risking his arm regardless of what was at stake.

The best example of that came in the state championships during Glavine's senior year. Glavine had pitched in the quarterfinals — going head-to-head with Pete Smith, who would later be a teammate in Atlanta. "We won the game seven-six," Glavine said. "Two future major leaguers, and that was the score. Real pitcher's duel."

The next day Glavine played center field in the semifinals, and, with two pitchers on the mound who would never sniff the big leagues, the score was tied 1–1 after nine innings. Coming in from the outfield after the ninth, Glavine went to Sidorovich and told him he was ready, willing, and able to pitch the tenth. Sidorovich put his hands on Glavine's shoulders and looked him in the eye: "You're not pitching today, Tom," he said. "I know how much you want to win, and so do I. But I'm not risking your future to win one game."

Glavine stayed in the outfield. Billerica lost 2–1 in the tenth. "As disappointing as it was to lose, I understand now what Jon was doing," Glavine said. "A lot of coaches wouldn't have worried about risking my future; they'd have wanted to win the game and the championship."

By that time Glavine was being pursued by college coaches from all over. At first it was exciting, but after a while it became a burden. In those days there were no limits on how often coaches could call a recruit. Glavine can remember lying in bed on Saturday mornings and hearing the phone ring again and again.

"The coaches all figured I'd be home on a Saturday morning, so they'd call," he said. "I'd hear the phone, and I'd just yell, 'Mom, tell them all I'm not home.' My parents protected me from a lot of it."

Since he couldn't go to Harvard, Glavine decided to sign a letter of intent with the University of Lowell, which was close to home, very good academically, and, even though a small school, played very good Division 1 hockey. Plus, the baseball team wasn't bad either. It seemed ideal. The plan was to go to Lowell, play both sports, and see what might be waiting for him as an athlete after college. Even so, Glavine was intrigued by both the hockey and baseball drafts, wondering if all those scouts who had shown up to see him would still be interested.

They were — although his announcement that he was planning to go to college clearly affected him in the hockey draft. The Los Angeles Kings took him in the fourth round and made no attempt to sign him. "I remember on the day of the draft [Kings general manager], Rogie Vachon called me and told me they would be keeping an eye on me at Lowell," Glavine said. "In hockey, they retained your rights for five years. So, in theory, I could have played at Lowell for four years, graduated, and then signed with the Kings, who would still have my rights."

Baseball's rules were different. If a team drafted him and he didn't sign and went to college, he wasn't eligible to be drafted again for at least three-years — and then he went back into the draft. Thus, it was a far bigger gamble for a baseball team to risk a pick on a high school player, especially one who had already signed a letter of intent to attend college.

Even so, as Glavine's senior season moved along, he noticed more and more scouts. The Toronto Blue Jays and the Cleveland Indians both showed a lot of interest, and other teams also had scouts keeping an eye on him. Although Glavine considered himself far more polished as a hockey player than as a pitcher, he was considered quite advanced for a left-handed pitcher by most of the scouts following his progress.

He was not overpowering in big league terms. His fastball topped out most of the time at 88 or 89 miles an hour, perhaps inching to 90 on occasion. He had a good curveball, and his control had improved steadily throughout high school. "When I was young, I threw very hard for a high school kid, but I was also wild," he said. "I might strike out twelve and walk ten in a game. By the time I was a senior, I wasn't doing that anymore."

The scouts also liked his demeanor on the mound: he never seemed to lose his cool, unusual in one so young. He was also a good athlete — if his hockey prowess wasn't proof of that, the fact that he played center field and hit third on the days he didn't pitch did. All of that added up to what scouts call "good makeup." Not only was he advanced for someone who had turned eighteen during March of his senior season, he was also someone who clearly had the potential to get to the big leagues fairly quickly. If his fastball had topped at 95, he would have been a top-five pick in the draft.

Because he wasn't overpowering and because he appeared likely to go to college, no one took him in the first round. Risking a first-round pick on someone who says he's going to college is something teams do only if they are willing to overspend greatly to sign someone. Historically, those players who have been talked out of college by big money have ended up not panning out.

Surprisingly, it wasn't the Blue Jays or the Indians who picked Glavine; it was the Atlanta Braves. Although the Braves had scouted Glavine, they had never contacted him to try to get a gauge on how serious he was about college.

On the day of the 1984 draft, Glavine was at baseball practice, when he saw his mother pull up to the field — not exactly a normal thing for her to do. He remembered the draft was that day — nowadays a player projected to go high in the draft would be at least glued to a cell phone, waiting for a call — and wondered what was up. Millie Glavine stopped to talk to Sidorovich, who waved Glavine over.

"The Braves took you in the second round," Millie Glavine reported.

"Okay, cool," Tom replied and went back to finish practice.

Glavine had expected to be taken somewhere in the first three rounds by either the Indians or the Blue Jays, although he had secretly hoped to be taken by the Red Sox. "If it had been the Red Sox, I probably would have gotten excited," he said. "If it had been the first round, I'd have been a little surprised but excited. Going in the second round was okay, and going to the Braves was okay, even though I knew just about nothing about them. That's why I didn't have that much of a reaction.

"It's funny looking back because at the time that was my thought, 'Okay, cool; let me get back to practice,' " Glavine says now, laughing at the memory. "It really was no big deal. I remember thinking, 'Second round, that's nice; they must think I'm pretty decent.' But in my mind I was going to finish the state championships, graduate, and go to Lowell. The only thing that could change that was if the Braves offered big money."

At that moment, Glavine didn't have an agent, and when the Braves called and asked for a meeting to discuss a possible contract, it was Fred Glavine who acted on Tom's behalf. Father and son sat down to discuss strategy. They decided that if the Braves offered a bonus that was big enough to ensure that he would have enough money to pay for college if baseball didn't work out, he would sign. Otherwise, he'd say thanks but no thanks and head to college.

A week after the draft, the Braves came to the house to negotiate with Fred Glavine. Paul Snyder, the team's scouting director, and Tony DeMacio, the scout who had recommended drafting Glavine, represented the Braves. The offer was a $60,000 bonus to sign. That was a fair offer for a second-round pick, but it wasn't enough for Fred Glavine.

"If that's the offer, I guess Tommy will go to school," he said.

Snyder and DeMacio asked him to think about it. Fred Glavine told them there was nothing to think about. A few days later they called and asked if they could talk again — they had another offer to make. Father and son consulted again: the standard bonus for a first-round pick in those days was between $75,000 and $90,000. If the Braves offered first-round money, it would mean they were very serious about Tom as a prospect. It would also mean he could almost certainly pay his way to college if he decided after a few years that he wasn't good enough to make it as a baseball player.

"Okay," Tom finally said. "If they offer first-round money, let's take it."

He hadn't really thought about what it would mean if he signed: no summer vacation hanging out with his pals or Chrissy Sullivan, his girlfriend; no fraternity parties; no more hockey. If the Braves were willing to guarantee his future — one way or the other — he was ready to jump. He got in his car and drove to a friend's house for a pre-graduation party, leaving his father to deal with Snyder and DeMacio.

He was in the backyard a few hours later when his friend's mother came out to tell Tom his dad was on the phone. "They offered $80,000," Fred Glavine said. "I took it."

Glavine raced to the backyard to tell his pals the news: he was an Atlanta Brave. "Everyone thought it was really cool," he said. "I did too. Of course I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into."

TWO WEEKS LATER, graduation over, Glavine was on a plane to Bradenton, Florida. He had made a quick trip to Atlanta to be introduced to the media with the Braves' other draft picks and to work out briefly at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Now, though, he was leaving home for the first time.

He was met at the airport by Pedro Gonzales, the manager of the Braves' rookie team. Glavine liked Gonzales right away — he was high energy, enthusiastic, and clearly happy to be managing very young, inexperienced players. The rest wasn't quite as easy or comfortable. The Braves were headquartered at the Pittsburgh Pirates' training facility, and the players stayed in dorms in what was called "Pirate City."

Glavine's roommate was Mark Lemke, who would end up traveling through the minor league system to become a starting second baseman with the Braves. Most of the other players were Hispanic. They spoke little English; Glavine spoke no Spanish. "I felt a little bit out of it," he said. "I really wasn't used to being a minority. It was a very different experience."

He went through all the normal homesickness an eighteen-year-old experiences and spent a lot of time waiting in line for the one pay phone in the basement of the dorm. "The worst part was that it was July in Florida, and it wasn't air-conditioned down there," he said. "You'd get eaten alive by all the bugs while you waited."

He figured he could deal with all that as long as he was playing baseball. During his second start, he began to feel pain in his shoulder. He pitched through it and hoped it would go away before his next start. It didn't. Frightened, he went to Gonzales's room and told him he was hurt.

"I think I need to see a doctor," he said. "Something is wrong."

Gonzales told him not to throw the next day while he contacted the front office. Glavine figured he would be told to fly to Atlanta to see a doctor. Instead he was told to stay in Bradenton. Johnny Sain would be coming down to see him.

In those days, Sain was a roving pitching instructor for the Braves. He was a legendary baseball figure, having been half of the famous "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain" duo that had pitched the Boston Braves to the World Series in 1948. He had been a pitching coach for several teams, including the New York Yankees, and had been immortalized in Jim Bouton's groundbreaking book, Ball Four.

Bouton had, for all intents and purposes, written that Sain was by far the best pitching coach he had ever had. Sain was unconventional. Most pitchers run in the outfield almost every day of their lives. Sain didn't believe in running. "You can't run the ball across the plate," he liked to say.

Glavine was vaguely aware of who Sain was and ready to do whatever he was told to do. Sain arrived and asked him what his symptoms were. "My arm hurts," Glavine answered. Sain said, "Okay, fine; you're going to throw the next ten days in a row."

At that moment Glavine was fairly convinced that Sain was insane.

But he was eighteen and this was what the great Johnny Sain was telling him to do. For the next ten days he played long toss in the outfield every day. Long toss is just what it sounds like. It is how most pitchers begin their off-season workouts, and something they continue throughout the season.

A long-toss session usually begins with the pitcher and whomever he is throwing to — frequently in spring training, two pitchers will throw to one another — standing no more than twenty feet apart, softly throwing the ball back and forth. Gradually, they will move back as their arms start to loosen up, usually about ten feet at a time, until they are standing anywhere from 100 to 120 feet apart. (The pitching rubber is sixty feet, six inches from home plate.) A major league pitcher can throw a ball on a straight line from 120 feet if he wants to, but most pitchers don't throw at much more than 60 percent of their velocity when long tossing.

An early-winter session can last for as little as ten minutes, with no more than ten or twelve throws from the maximum distance. When a pitcher is well into spring training or the regular season, he might throw as many as forty or fifty times from the full distance. There's no windup involved, no throwing from the stretch. It is, essentially, a game of catch played at a very high level.

Glavine long tossed with Sain for ten days. He still felt some soreness the first few days, but after about six or seven days he noticed that he was pain free. By the time the ten days were up, he was throwing free and easy from 120 feet for fifty tosses.

Sain asked how his arm felt. "Great," Glavine said. "Pain free."

"Okay; tomorrow you'll throw off a mound out of the bullpen," Sain said. "If that goes well, we'll get you back in a game in a few days."

At that juncture if Sain had suggested to Glavine that he pitch standing on his head, Glavine would no doubt have done as he was told. The bullpen session — another fifty pitches at about 80 percent of full velocity with some breaking pitches mixed in — went fine. Two days later, Glavine was back on the mound.

"Never felt another twinge again," he said. "Johnny's theory was simple: my arm just wasn't stretched out because in high school you don't pitch that much. Plus, even though I probably didn't know it, I was trying to throw harder than I had in high school. The rest of the season went fine."

Baseball's minor leagues, except at the Rookie League level, are filled with players of all ages and varying experiences: Triple-A is one step from the majors, and teams there are often full of players who have been in the majors and will be back there shortly. Double-A has a handful of players who might be ready to jump straight to the majors but know, for the most part, they're still probably a year away from being ready to go there. The Single-A level is divided into "high-A" and "low-A," which are exactly as described. Once upon a time, the minor leagues went as low as "Class D" ball, but someone somewhere decided that classifying anyone below A-level was somehow insulting. Thus, there is high-A and low-A and, below that, rookie ball and short-season rookie ball, which is where Glavine had been sent initially. Short-season is almost exclusively for players who have just finished high school in June, although there are occasional exceptions.

When short-season was over, Glavine went home for a week and then flew back to Florida to play for the Braves Instructional League team.

Instructional leagues, which are held in the fall, are just that: a place where younger players are sent to learn their craft. There are no Crash Davises in instructional leagues, only younger players deemed by their teams to have the potential to make the majors. I-league games aren't really games in the traditional sense.

"You might start the first inning like a regular game, then go out in the second, and they say, 'Okay; man on first. Let's work on your pickoff move this inning,' " Glavine remembered. "They might keep you out there for five outs if you have an inning where you don't throw a lot of pitches, or get you out of there after one or two if you're struggling."

Glavine had a good fall but was happy to return home for the holidays. He had been gone for most of six months. Because his bonus money was being banked in case it was needed down the road and his minor league pay was about $650 a month, he went to work during the winter on his father's construction crews.

"Dad steered me clear of the real heavy lifting," he said. "But I can remember carrying cement on a few occasions and thinking, 'Whoo boy; be careful with that left shoulder.' "

The shoulder survived the winter, and Glavine found himself promoted to low-A ball the following spring in Sumter, South Carolina. He was a little disappointed not to be sent to Durham, home of the higher A team (not to mention "Bull Durham") but felt better when it was explained to him that the Durham team was, generally speaking, for older players — guys who had gone to college or had slipped back from higher levels of the minors.

It turned out Sumter was a team filled with genuine prospects: Lemke was there, as were Jeff Blauser and Ron Gant, all of whom would end up with the Braves and have lengthy major league careers. Friendships were cemented that summer. The players even found time to tour Fort Sumter, the spot where the first shots of the Civil War had been fired. "Not a whole lot else to do in that town," Glavine remembered. He pitched well at Sumter, but the thing he remembers most is the heat.

"Just absolutely smoking; every day, every night," he said. "Hottest summer of my life, bar none."

Even in the stifling heat, Glavine pitched well, leading the league in ERA (2.35) while striking out 174 batters in 168 innings. "I guess at that level I was still a flamethrower," he joked. "I had learned a lot in the Instructional League. I was starting to become a pitcher."

He returned to the Instructional League that fall and was promoted to Class-AA Greenville at the start of the 1986 season. He was on the All-Star team in July and pitching so well that he began to hear rumors that he might get called up to the big leagues in September. The Braves were an awful team — they would go on to finish the season 72–89 after going 66–96 a year earlier — and the thought was that calling up some of the team's bright young prospects in September, when the roster limit was expanded from twenty-five players to forty, might give Braves fans (those that were left) some hope for the future.

Early in August, Bill Slack, Glavine's pitching coach in Greenville, sat him down to tell him not to listen to the rumors. "You're staying right here until the end of the season," he said. "Don't listen to any rumors about moving up."

A week later Slack called Glavine in again. "You're going to Richmond," he said, simply.

Richmond was the Braves' Triple-A farm team — one step away from the majors. Glavine was excited and disappointed.

"We had a group of really good guys," he said. "I felt very comfortable where I was, and, mentally, I was thinking I'd finish the season there and, with luck, make it to Richmond the following spring. On the other hand, I was being promoted; I felt ready to make the move, and I was one step from the major leagues."


On Sale
May 1, 2008
Page Count
544 pages

John Feinstein

About the Author

John Feinstein is the author of forty-five books, including two #1 New York Times bestsellers, A Season on the Brink, and A Good Walk Spoiled. His mystery novel, Last Shot, won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for mystery writing in the Young Adult category. He is a member of six Halls of Fame and is a contributing columnist for The Washington Post. Additionally, he does color commentary for VCU basketball, George Mason basketball, and Longwood basketball. He is also does commentary for the Navy radio network and is a regular on The Sports Junkies in his hometown of Washington, DC.

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