It was neat.
That's the word my vocabulary sent up to describe the sensation of watching Billy Wagner retire Mike Fontenot and secure Tom Glavine's 300th career (and 58th New York Mets) win Sunday night. Some round numbers are more spherical than others and this one is a perfect circle. Perfectly neat.
The guy's career began 20 years ago this month. He goes out approximately every fifth day, skipping the Disabled List altogether, and posts an average of 15 wins annually. Perfectly consistent, too. I remember when one of the pitchers who was on the verge of 300 wins in the early '80s neared this mark, Warner Wolf said to put it in perspective, imagine a pitcher winning 14 games a year for 20 years: he would still need 20 more to make it to 300.
You don't need to go to the videotape to know baseball has been populated by awesome pitchers who did not manage this perfectly neat number. Nobody's pulling the plaques of Bob Feller or Sandy Koufax or Bob Gibson or Juan Marichal or Jim Palmer or Catfish Hunter or Ferguson Jenkins for not getting there; nor should anybody think any less of Tommy John or Jim Kaat or Bert Blyleven for finishing a bit short (or Randy Johnson if he hangs 'em up 16 shy as back problems may dictate).
But getting to 300 certainly merits extra credit. Every starting pitcher would love to win a 300th but only 23 have achieved it even though we're talking about the most single-minded creatures on the diamond in any game they play. They help their teams when they win but they help themselves first. They revel in getting the W. They express gratitude for being taken off the hook. They can barely force a smile if their good work is not personally rewarded.
Quick, what's Jose Reyes' won-lost record and how does it rank among shortstops? How many wins did Cleon Jones accumulate in his career? Was Ray Knight ever no-decisioned?
It doesn't work that way. The whole “pitchers aren't players” line Keith Hernandez doles out every night isn't simply the raving of a mad Mex. It is different for starting pitchers. Their schedules are different. Their metrics are different. Their responsibilities are different (though let us forever note that the first run of Tom Glavine's 300th win was driven in by Tom Glavine). With few exceptions, you — a family member, a teammate, a fourth-estatesman — can't talk to one of them on the day he pitches. Imagine David Wright or Carlos Delgado telling a reporter, “Sorry, I don't do interviews when I'm starting.”
Their near-term goals are different, too. When Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez went dry in their quest to get off of home runs 754 and 499, respectively, it made perfect sense. Their job has never been to go up and swing for the fences. It's to hit the ball somewhere fair. They have the talent and ability to hit it far and sometimes the damn thing travels out of everybody's reach. When Bonds and Rodriguez started to think about it, they had to have adjusted their thought processes from “see the ball, hit the ball” to “must…hit…next…home…run.” With that attitude, it's not surprising each of them was going to hit nothing more than a figurative wall for a week.
Starting pitchers, unless they're aiming for a strikeout record, one supposes, don't have that problem. Their job is to get an out, any kind of out, to get at least 15 outs with their team ahead or as many outs as it will take to rate a win. As we've discussed a bit of late, it's kind of a silly statistic. A starter can throw nine brilliant innings and be pinned with a loss. A reliever can enter an inning with two outs, pick off a runner and exit for a pinch-hitter and eventually be credited with a victory because his teammates score a passel of runs on “his” behalf. Thus, on a case-by-case basis, whoever gets one win is sort of irrelevant.
Whoever gets 300 of them, however, must be doing something very well for very long. That sounds a lot like Tom Glavine.