WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ Go ahead and ask those who know Greg Maddux best. They'll admit the most precise pitcher on the planet isn't perfect.

Ask John Smoltz. He'll talk about the time he went bowling on a lark with his Atlanta teammate, and all Maddux could manage was nine strikes in a row.

Ask Kathy Maddux. She'll describe how her husband's hair is often mussed because of an odd quirk _ he doesn't like the feel of a comb running through it. His pregame eating habits aren't great _ hamburgers from Wendy's drive-thru will do.

Ask his friends. Maddux, they say, once in a while enjoys a good, loud belch.

``I have a sense of humor that the more disgusting it is, the more funny it is to me,'' he chuckles.

Ask the fans sitting in first-row box seats. They've been warned at times to hold their ears on the rare occasions when the man nicknamed ``Mad Dog'' doesn't put the ball exactly where he wants. He's been known to cuss himself when it happens.

``He doesn't appear to throw too many pitches he's not happy with,'' teammate Tom Glavine said. ``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. Sometimes you say to yourself, `How can this guy be so mad?'''

It all stems, says the soft-spoken, slightly built guy who's won an unprecedented four straight Cy Young Awards, from always wanting to do better.

``When you expect to do something and don't do it,'' Maddux said, ``it can be frustrating.''

That applies to whatever he's doing, to whatever game he's playing.

Blackjack? Maddux, whose father has a second career as a poker dealer at the MGM Grand in their hometown of Las Vegas, usually walks away from the tables a winner.

Nintendo? His golf scores often beat the ones listed for pros like Tom Watson.

Real golf? He has a handicap under 5 and shoots par on some of the top courses in the country, like Pebble Beach.

Jeopardy? ``He knew the height of the Grand Coulee Dam,'' said his attorney, Scott Boras. ``How does anybody know that?''

And, of course, baseball.

A month before his 30th birthday, his spikes and glove already are in the Hall of Fame, donated this spring after he helped the Braves win that elusive World Series championship.

His 19-2 record last season was the best ever among pitchers with at least 20 decisions, and his current 18-game road winning streak is the longest in history. He averaged less than one walk per nine innings, won his third straight ERA title and earned his sixth consecutive Gold Glove.

And all these accomplishments from someone who doesn't break 90 mph with his fastball. What makes Maddux so dominating is his location and his recall of hitters.

Plus, as he points out, an incredibly strong will.

``When I was growing up, I was a Cincinnati Reds fan,'' he said. ``We had family in southern Indiana, and they were Reds fans, and so was I. That meant you loved the Reds and hated the Dodgers.

``When I first got called up to the majors by the Cubs, Ron Cey was on the team. All I knew about him was he was a Dodger, and I hated them. So I wouldn't talk to him. I talked to everybody else on the team before I talked to him,'' he said.

The silence ended about a week later when Maddux got stuck sharing a cab with Cey.

``Know what?'' Maddux said. ``He was a pretty good guy.''

Since his rookie season with Chicago in 1986, Maddux is 150-93 with a 2.88 ERA. He's not one to boast, however _ in fact, didn't want to pose for pictures with his Cy Young trophies, thinking that would be showing off.

All in all, not much room for improvement, not that he ever stops trying. Back when he was the Cubs, he visited a sports psychologist, just to help him fine-tune the way he focused on each pitch.

``He always feels he can do better,'' said Charlie O'Brien, his personal catcher for two years. ``He's just a perfectionist. In a way, he's a victim of his success. If he gives up three runs, it's like, `What's wrong with Greg Maddux?'''

Then again, that's rarely a problem. For two years, his ERA has been 2 1/2 runs better than the NL average, and he's the only pitcher since Walter Johnson in 1918-19 to have an ERA under 1.70 in successive seasons.

The stat that interests him, though, is time of game.

Maddux's starts last season averaged 2 hours, 33 minutes, making them 12 minutes faster than the league norm. Included was the quickest game in the majors _ a 1-0 win in St. Louis that lasted just 1 hour, 50 minutes in which 66 of his 88 pitches were strikes.

``I've got a bet with Glavine,'' Maddux said. ``Slowest time buys the beers.''

Not that anyone would recognize baseball's most dominant player sitting in a restaurant drinking those beers.

With those bookish, tortoise-shell glasses he wears except when pitching and his small frame, Maddux looks like the accountant who counts the money, rather than the athlete who is making $28 million for five years.

At an All-Star party last summer at an amusement park in Texas, several kids came up and asked for autographs from Cubs buddy Mark Grace, not realizing the man next to him was Maddux. In the offseason, he sits undisturbed with his wife and brother, Boston reliever Mike Maddux, in the stands at Las Vegas Thunder minor league hockey games.

``I don't look like a baseball player. I look like your average Joe,'' he said. ``There are people who can act like a baseball player or carry themselves around like one. That's not me. The only time I look like a baseball player is when I'm on the mound.''

Out there, he's thinking about how to get better.

Something he's working on: How to hold runners closer, having seen 26 of 32 basestealers make it last season.

One way he tries to improve: Never make the same mistake twice.

In Game 1 of the 1989 NL playoffs, Will Clark hit a grand slam off Maddux. Clark later said he'd read Maddux's lips and saw him repeat manager Don Zimmer's instructions to throw an inside fastball.

Ever since then, Maddux has not held a meaningful discussion on the mound without covering his mouth with his glove.

``He said he'd read my lips. I don't know if he did or not,'' Maddux said. ``But why take chances out there?''

End advance for March 30-31