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Glavine back where it all started for him

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The blazing orange sun had barely risen into the sky over the Disney empire on Friday when the new left-hander in town -- some guy named Tom Glavine -- poked his head inside the clubhouse of the Atlanta Braves.

We wouldn't exactly describe what he found as a packed house.

The manager (Bobby Cox) was there. And one of his coaches, Eddie Perez. And the strength coach, Frank Fultz. That, friends, represented the entire welcome-home throng.

Not a player to be found -- possibly related to the fact that it was 7 o'clock in the morning on the first day of spring training.

"Ah, you know how it is," Glavine laughed. "All the old guys get here early. We need to make sure we wake up."

But all the proof Glavine would really need that he wasn't a high-profile New York paparazzi hero anymore was the next big milepost in his day: his official Welcome Back news conference.

It was just coincidence that across the state, the Mets happened to be trotting out their new left-hander, that Johan Santana fellow, to meet the media on the very same day. And the reporter head count in Port St. Lucie nearly equaled the population of Delaware.

But in the first-base dugout at Disney, Tom Glavine found precisely one camera waiting for him (manned by ESPN.com's own intrepid Anthony Spadacenta) -- and just about zero representatives of the non-Georgia portion of our nation's media.

Sheesh, in New York, the beer vendors draw bigger media hordes than this.

But even though Glavine turns 42 years old in five weeks, even though his five-year stay in New York ended badly, his return to Atlanta deserves more attention than it got.

This isn't just another cute little spring-training reunion story, you see. The return of Tom Glavine has a chance to be one of the most significant moves of the entire offseason -- for any team.

Oh, not if Glavine spins off a 4.45 ERA again, as he did last year for the Mets. And not if his last three starts as a Met (0-2, 14.81 ERA, 25 hits allowed in 10 1/3 innings) were a harbinger, not a fluke.

But why do we have the feeling that this story is going to have a happy ending? Or at least happier than the ending of Glavine's ill-fated Queens excursion, anyhow?

Maybe it's because he is heading for a place where he loves the ballpark (3.36 lifetime ERA at Turner Field). Where he has the kind of bond with the manager that he never seemed to develop with Willie Randolph. Where he has a history with the fan base that will make him a beloved figure for the rest of his life.

Or maybe it's because this is a place where Tom Glavine just seems to fit.

This is a man who looks like a Brave, feels like a Brave, even sounds like a Brave. Always has. Always will.

"It was kind of a weird feeling coming here this time," he said Friday. "I knew it would be."

But his manager's response to that was: "Tommy, it seems like you never left."

Oh, he left, all right. He left five years ago -- because of money, of all things. The Braves were running low on it. The Mets offered him $37 million over the next three years. So off he went.

But he never moved his wife and family, never disconnected the roots that had tied him to Atlanta for the first 16 years of his big league life. Always felt the tug of the place where he and the Greatest Rotation of Modern Times cranked division titles off their assembly line, one after another after another.

Finally last winter, after a disastrous final chapter in New York, he came to a conclusion:

Either he was going to return home and pitch in Atlanta, or he wasn't going to pitch, period.

"My family was the reason," Glavine said Friday. "Had the Braves not been interested in bringing me back, I would have retired, because it was time for me to be home."

Fortunately, the Braves located $8 million in their Cy Young Alumni Fund. And poof: Tom Glavine was a Brave. Again.

He returns to a place where he won 242 games, won 20-plus in five different seasons, earned himself two Cy Young Awards. And he returns to a place where he once pitched eight one-hit innings on an October evening in 1995, when the Braves clinched the only World Series they've won in Atlanta.

So the memories in this place weave a comfort zone for Tom Glavine that might never have been reachable again had he stayed in New York.

Not after Glavine's final journey to the mound as a Met, on the final Sunday of last season.

Not after a box score line that read: 1/3 IP, 5 H, 7 R, 7 ER, 2 BB, 0 K, 1 HBP.

Not after an entire season's work melted away in that disastrous eight-hitter nightmare.

"I didn't really look at it initially as, 'Man, that was my last start in New York, and that's not the way I wanted to go out of there,' because I really didn't know what I was going to do until a month into the offseason," Glavine said, stoically. "But now, looking back on it, of course I'm disappointed that that was the last start that I had there and that was the way that I went out. But that's the difficult side of baseball sometimes … having to deal with that kind of frustration and disappointment.

"But it's how you deal with those disappointments and move forward that matters the most. And certainly I'm trying to move past that. They [the Mets] have moved past that. And that's the beauty of spring training every year. You kind of wipe the slate clean and start over again."

Start over, huh? That's what he said. But it seems like the wrong term to apply to a man returning to the scene of his greatest triumphs.

Just the sight of the adjacent lockers of Glavine and John Smoltz -- the two winningest teammates (510 combined wins) on any club's roster this spring -- is a reminder of what used to be here. For a decade, we almost took the brilliance of Glavine, Smoltz and Greg Maddux for granted. But now it's hitting home:

We're never going to witness anything like that again. Are we?

"When you're still playing, it's hard to look at that stuff," Glavine said. "I look at it sometimes and reflect on how much fun we had as a group, and the laughs and things like that. But I don't really think that I've sat down and really assessed from a performance standpoint how good we were and how special it was.

"I guess recently, toward the end of last year and this winter, I thought about it for a minute or two. And I thought, 'Man, you've got a chance to see three guys out of one rotation going to the Hall of Fame. That's pretty special in and of itself.'"

Had the Braves not been interested in bringing me back, I would have retired, because it was time for me to be home.

--Tom Glavine

Hey, ya think?

If all three of those men go to the Hall of Fame, they will join one of baseball's most exclusive clubs in history.

Glavine, Smoltz and Maddux pitched together in the same rotation for only seven years (1993-99) -- thanks to Maddux's late arrival via free agency and Smoltz's temporary change of address to the bullpen. But according to the Elias Sports Bureau, only one other rotation has ever included three Hall of Famers who all started together for that many years.

That was the 1949-56 Indians of Bob Lemon, Early Wynn and Bob Feller. But even that isn't an exact parallel. Feller was fading by the mid-'50s and never made it to 20 starts in any of his final three seasons.

And just two other rotations in history come close -- the 1903-07 Philadelphia A's (featuring Rube Waddell, Eddie Plank and Chief Bender for five seasons) and the 1930-33 Yankees (featuring Lefty Gomez, Red Ruffing and Herb Pennock for four seasons).

But Glavine, Smoltz and Maddux are still rolling. Those three won 13, 14 and 14 games respectively last year. And maybe that's not the same as winning 20 -- but it's more games than a long list of more buzzed-about pitchers (Jeremy Bonderman, Derek Lowe, Ben Sheets, Dontrelle Willis et al) won in 2007.

So take a moment, when Glavine and Smoltz come to town this summer, to ponder what they represent. They were part of something that probably isn't coming along again for the next thousand years or so.

"I don't believe so, either," said Smoltz on Friday. "There's a lot of reasons. Not that there won't be three type pitchers like that again. I just think it's hard to maintain it at the level we maintained it at. We benefited from being on a pretty good team, obviously. But the one thing I'm most proud of is we were all the same kind of mind-set. We took a lot of pride and enjoyed what we did, and fed off each other."

So now that it's reunion time, can the Braves replicate those days? Can Smoltz, Glavine and Tim Hudson feed off each other in much the same way that the previous incarnation did, even though Glavine isn't what he used to be and Hudson isn't Maddux?

"I just can't explain to you what it means to have another stable, qualified, quantified guy going out there," Smoltz said. "It helps everybody. … I have to think a total of 30 wins for the two of us [him and Glavine] -- that's doable. I really believe the two of us will be able to anchor. And I really believe that, with Huddy, we can win anywhere between 45 and 50 games. That's what you expect out of your top three guys. But more importantly, you should probably get a lot of quality starts out of all three. And our team was probably last in all of baseball last year in quality starts."

Well, not quite. Actually, the Braves finished 12th in the big leagues, with 81 quality starts (a long way from where the last-place Marlins bottomed out, at 49). But remember, the quality start is Glavine's specialty de casa. He led all left-handers in the National League last season, with 23. And only four pitchers in the entire National League had more than him:

Jake Peavy, Brad Penny, Smoltz and Hudson.

The Tom Glavine who worked here 10 years ago isn't this Tom Glavine. They all know that. That Tom Glavine was an ace. The Tom Glavine who returns is just a piece of the puzzle. But that's fine with the team he's joining.

"We don't need him to carry us, or to be our No. 1," said GM Frank Wren. "We signed him to give us the quality innings he's given in the past. And that takes some pressure off him. It takes some pressure off the other starters. It's just reassuring to have him here."

If it all works out the way it's supposed to on the drawing board -- and Mike Hampton finally makes it through a year without visiting another orthopedic surgeon -- the Braves will have the deepest rotation in the National League East, and possibly the deepest in the league.

Which makes them as dangerous as any team in their league.

But, at the very least, now that Tom Glavine is back, they definitely have the most dangerous golfing twosome in anybody's rotation.

If you're wondering, the first Glavine-Smoltz 18-hole shootout of 2008 is coming up any day now, just as soon as their families head back north. But as happy as Glavine is to have a locker next to Smoltz, he's just as wary of what Smoltz has planned for him on the golf course.

"He keeps telling me how bad his game is," laughed Glavine. "But I think he's trying to suck me into a bet."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," has been published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.