Here's a random trivia question for you: what do penicillin, the Beatles song "Yesterday," sticky notes and Tom Glavine's changeup all have in common?
Well, Alexander Fleming didn't purposely set out to discover that penicillin could kill bacteria and become the founder of antibiotics. Paul McCartney didn't know that he'd go to bed one night and dream up the melody of one of rock music's greatest ballads. 3M chemist Spencer Silver didn't know that his failure at creating a strong adhesive would ultimately lead to the "low-tack" adhesive used on Post-its. And as for the last member of that list, we'll let Glavine himself explain it.
In the latest episode of Jomboy Media's "Toeing The Slab with David Cone," available above, Glavine broke down the lucky moment that led to what he sees as a true key to his success.
"Once I really got that changeup and got it going and got a secondary pitch that I could really lean on, it made it easier for me to pitch in those games where I didn't have my best stuff, because I always had that pitch in my back pocket," Glavine said. "... I think those were the two or three keys. I learned how to throw more strikes, I developed that changeup and then that gave me the confidence to go out there and pitch games when I knew I wasn't very good but could still find a way to keep the team in it and win."
So there it is. The magical ingredient. The changeup, the baffling pitch that truly provided him with the boost that he needed to find such success on the mound.
But who taught it to him? Where'd it come from? How'd he refine it to give it such a nasty break?
"It was a mistake, truth be told. I was a circle changeup guy, like I started out in the minor leagues," Glavine said. "Funny story, I was in Double-A ball pitching and I was throwing a forkball and for me, that forkball was nasty. Like, I'd throw that thing 52 feet and guys in Double-A would swing at it and I thought it was the greatest pitch ever."
Not everyone agreed with that sentiment, namely former MLB catcher and player-coach Ned Yost, whose blunt assessment of Glavine's forkball was this: "That pitch sucks."
No one in the big leagues was going to bite at Glavine's dying forkball the way that minor leaguers were, explained Yost, and he advised the young hurler to work on another pitch. If Glavine added a changeup, Yost thought things might change for the better. And so he got to work.
"I remember that conversation vividly and, not to the point where I scrapped the forkball that next day, but I remembered and went, 'you know what, I need to learn how to throw a circle changeup or straight changeup,'" Glavine recalled. "So I started with the circle changeup and it was an okay pitch for me. When I threw it right, it was good. When I didn't, it wasn't. And most of the time when I didn't throw it right, I threw it too hard... as a pitcher, when you're worrying about the velocity of an offspeed pitch, you start manipulating arm speed and start doing all those things. You give it away. That was my problem.
"And I was shagging in the outfield one day in spring training and a ball rolled up to me and I picked it up barehanded, and it settled in my hand on my middle finger and my ring finger. And I thought, 'That feels pretty good!'"
Every time a ball came his way, he'd try out that randomly discovered grip with the same realization. It just felt right. And the rest of practice, each ball he retrieved would settle in that grip, and he'd toss it back using the same configuration of his fingers.
"It so happened I had a side session the next day and I was like, 'You know what, screw it, I'm gonna try it,'" Glavine said. "And when I went to the bullpen the next day, the good ones were really good. And I was like, 'Oh man, I might have something here.' So I stuck with it and then it just became, over time, an exercise in getting consistent with it and then getting confident with it, and then ultimately getting to that point where I threw it anytime, anywhere.
"It didn't matter. It was my pitch. But it was by accident that I came up with that grip."