ATLANTA - He picked up a rolling ball in the outfield one day and a changeup was born.
The funny thing is, Tom Glavine knew it right away. He had been searching for a changeup grip that felt comfortable, and then it happened by accident, as if the baseball gods were simply waiting until the right moment to introduce him to a pitch that's defined his career.
"I've tried to show it to other guys, but they can't do it," said Glavine, holding a ball between his two middle fingers in a demonstration of the changeup grip he discovered by accident during spring training a dozen years ago. "The reason it's so good for me is because of my arm speed. With this grip, I can't throw it hard, no matter how hard I try."
His changeup speaks as much to revival as survival. Without it, he wouldn't be heading for the Hall of Fame, and the Atlanta Braves wouldn't have just completed a decade of excellence. When the Braves return to Turner Field tonight to play the Los Angeles Dodgers in the first of a three-game set, Glavine, who leads the major leagues with an 0.93 ERA, will be aiming to become the major's fourth six-game winner.
"How can you come up with anything new to say about Tom Glavine?" pitching coach Leo Mazzone said. "He's been doing the same thing for 15 years. Pitching is not computer science, it's commanding a fastball and changing speeds. If you can't do that, all the reports and things you get off a computer aren't going to do you any good."
Glavine does it better than most. Five times he's won 20 games, and he's posted double-digit wins in 13 straight seasons. His 229 wins tie him for 53rd place on the all-time list with Luis Tiant and Sam Jones. Yet, in many ways, he hasn't received his due because of the shadow cast by teammate and four-time Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux.
"Glavine baffles you in so many ways," Phillies center fielder Doug Glanville said. "He has so many different types of fastballs and changeups. Some of them dive and go straight down. He's going to go down as one of the best pitchers of all time, and he doesn't really get the respect he probably deserves."
What do you really know about Glavine, other than he's the winningest left-hander in baseball over the last 13 years? OK, he's a seven-time All-Star, he offered one of the best pitching performances in World Series history in Game 6 of the '95 Series, pitching eight innings in a 1-0 championship-clinching win over the Indians, and he's one of the league's best hitting pitchers, winner of three Silver Sluggers.
Beyond that, maybe this is all you need to know. Glavine defines stubbornness on the mound. He absolutely, under no circumstances, will ever give in to a hitter.
"I've seen him walk a guy with the bases loaded to get to the next hitter," Mazzone said. "Heck, I've seen him pitch around a guy in spring training."
How many other pitchers, Mazzone was asked, has he ever seen purposely walk a hitter with the bases loaded because he felt confident he could get the next guy out?
"None," Mazzone said flatly. "I told Tom years ago that the best compliment that can be paid to him is to be told, you're our Whitey Ford. That pretty much says it all."
Like Ford, a Hall of Famer who finished his career in 1967 with the Yankees with 236 wins, Glavine doesn't dazzle you. Except when you consider this: He's done it for all these years with just two pitches, a sinking fastball and that remarkable changeup. Oh, he has a curve, and if he alters his curveball grip slightly, he can throw a slider, but he rarely throws more than a handful of breaking pitches during any start.
It's sinkers and changeups away, the speed varying about seven m.p.h., which is all that's needed to throw off a hitter's timing.
"Everybody knows what's coming and still can't hit it," manager Bobby Cox said. "That's the art of pitching -- deception. His delivery is perfect, and it has to be for him to be able to spot the ball the way he does."
Mazzone puts it this way: "Tom's delivery is so good, so polished, you can't detect a change of speeds."
In response to a strike zone that often seems no bigger than a belt buckle, Glavine has subtly altered his game plan, working inside regularly to right-handed hitters with fastballs and changeups. That's a radical departure for a pitcher who's lived on the outer fringe so long many of the game's insiders feel baseball's shrinking strike zone is aimed specifically at him.
He thinks of his modified approach this way: It's just another changeup.
"If I'm not able to be as consistent on the outside corner as I want, I had to find ways to make it easier," Glavine said. "After a while, I started saying I needed to do things a little differently. If I'm going with sinkers and changeups away to right-handed hitters, why not incorporate that inside?"
The old Glavine, or the new one, it all comes down to the same thing.
"Tom pitches off feel," Mazzone said. "He knows what feels right and what doesn't. It's worked for 15 years, so I figure he knows what he's doing."
Reach Bill Zack at email@example.com.
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