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Greg Maddux: The Greatest Pitcher in the World

March 13, 1996

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ The Greatest Pitcher in the World is holding court in the bullpen early one morning.

Greg Maddux hasn’t even put on his cleats yet. Still, when he toes the rubber in his tennis shoes and begins a discussion about his favorite mounds in the National League, it doesn’t take long to draw an audience.

Journeyman Rod Nichols watches intently. Youngsters Tom Thobe and Chris Brock wander over, perhaps hoping that some of Maddux’s genius will rub off.

This is where it all begins for The Greatest Pitcher in the World. Even in the early days of spring training with the Atlanta Braves, Maddux is seeking perfection.

Four straight Cy Young awards are nice. His first world championship meant a lot. But those are things he considers beyond his control. Maddux gets ultimate pleasure seeking that moment in time when he puts together the perfect windup, the perfect delivery, the perfect follow-through.

``I think if you do everything mechanically correct, it’s impossible for the ball not to go where you want it,″ he said. ``It really is. It’s just like a golf swing. If you make the absolute perfect golf swing, the ball is going to go where you’re aiming it.

``Pitching is no different. If you make the absolute perfect windup and delivery, whatever, the ball is going to go where I want it to. It has to.″

Of course, perfection is an elusive thing. While Maddux may be coming off the two greatest seasons in pitching history _ it’s right there in the numbers, but more on that later _ there’s always some little nuance, some little movement that can be done a just a little bit better. He operates in a world that no one else, not even a seasoned baseball person, can possibly comprehend.

``He’s the most intelligent individual in pitching that I’ve ever been around,″ said Leo Mazzone, the Braves pitching coach. ``His thought process about the game of baseball, about how he approaches hitters, knowing how hitters approach him and how he thinks about what they’re thinking, is the smartest I’ve ever been around. What separates him is his intellect.″

Maddux also conceals a fiery temper beneath the shoulder-shrugging, ``Who, me?″ persona that makes his one of the most approachable players in the clubhouse. Fans sitting behind home plate have been warned to expect a flurry of expletives when he’s on the mound. Even on swinging strikes, he’s liable to curse himself unmercifully because the pitch wasn’t in the exact location where he wanted it.

``Here is a guy who doesn’t have that many bad games,″ said teammate Tom Glavine, the last pitcher to win the NL Cy Young before Maddux began his amazing streak in 1992. ``He doesn’t appear to throw too many pitches he’s not happy with. But when he does, you know about it. He can have a temper tantrum with the best of them, a lot of times better than any of us can have.″

Temper tantrums? From a pitcher who is most dominating in the history of the game?

Two years ago, Maddux had a 1.56 ERA while the cumulative NL average was 4.21 _ a staggering 2.65 differential that is the best ever recorded. The second-best came last year, when Maddux had a 1.63 ERA _ 2.55 below the league average of 4.18.

``Sometime you say to yourself, `How can this guy be so mad? He’s just had 14 complete games in a row, he has his first bad game and he gets mad like that?′ That just tells you what kind of competitor he is. He expects himself to go out there and do it perfect all the time,″ Glavine said.

Standing 6 feet tall and weighing 175 pounds, Maddux hardly looks like The Greatest Pitcher in the World. With his glasses (Maddux wears contacts on the mound), he could pass for an accountant or high school history teacher. On his way to a game, he can stop at Wendy’s for a hamburger without fear of being mobbed by autograph seekers.

Instead of being limited by his unimposing physique, Maddux turned it to his advantage. Instead of trying to throw harder, he learned to throw softer.

``Everybody is capable doing it,″ he said with shrug. ``You can’t learn to put more on the ball. That’s a different kind of thing. But anybody can learn to take more off. Some just do it better than others.″

No one does it better than Maddux.

``Mentally, you really have to trust yourself,″ he continued. ``It takes a little more trust in yourself than throwing hard. I lost enough games trying to put more on the ball, so finally I said maybe I should try to take more off. If you get beat enough trying to do something, you eventually change. I was pretty much forced to change.″

Off the field, Maddux comes across as a mischievous, Eddie Haskell-type character. You know, the type of kid who would say ``Mrs. Cleaver, you look so nice today,″ while plotting some nefarious action behind her back.

``I have a sense of humor that the more disgusting it is, the more funny it is to me,″ Maddux admitted, saying it probably stems from his affection for older brother Mike, also a major league pitcher. ``You know how you always look up to your big brother. If you see him doing something vulgar and enjoying it, you learn to enjoy it and appreciate it, too. We had a lot of fun seeing how vulgar we could be in front of our sister.″

Said Glavine, ``I don’t know if you would classify him as the type of guy who’s a good practical joker, always trying to get things going. But he certainly does some things around here that make you look at him and just kind of shake your head. You want to say to him, `If people realized how you really were, they probably wouldn’t like you as much as they do.‴

The vulgar humorist is just as much a part of Maddux’s persona as the soft-spoken, bespectacled man who enjoys sitting at home with his 2-year-old daughter, watching TV and playing video games. While Maddux is the last player you’d expect to say something controversial after a game, he’s not turned off by someone like Bryan Cox, spouting a string of obscenities after a game.

``I enjoy watching his interviews because they are different, they are controversial, they are emotional,″ Maddux said. ``I’m guilty of that myself. If I was the producer and I had my choice of running an interview like that or a guy saying nice things about everybody that we’ve heard a million times in a row, I’d pick Cox.″

You begin to realize there are no simple definitions to Maddux’s psyche, just as there is no simple way for hitters to figure out what pitch they might see next.

It’s all part of being The Greatest Pitcher in the World.

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