Baseball: Fab Five help Braves pitch for perfection: Southern charm lures magical Maddux to Atlanta for new season, which began yesterday. Richard Weekes reports

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The Independent Online
BOBBY COX, manager of the Atlanta Braves, sat in the home dug-out at West Palm Beach's Municipal Stadium in Florida. Out on the field his team went through their batting and fielding drills as the 51-year-old Cox, arms folded, chatted with reporters, demonstratively not presiding over practice.

Everywhere the rhythms of the game were in full swing. At the batting cage four players awaited their turn to take their quota of hits: the outfielders Otis Nixon and Deion Sanders, the catcher Greg Olson and Francisco Cabrera, a hero last October when his 11th-hour hit in the play- offs sent Atlanta into their second successive World Series. Nearby, the first-base coach, Pat Corrales, hit groundballs to the infielders, who unerringly scooped them up and hurled them smack into the glove of the first baseman, like smart bombs.

Cox could afford to take a back seat. Though his Braves began the new season yesterday after coming off second best in two World Series in a row, one move they made in the winter explains why they are expected to be better than bridesmaids in 1993. Greg Maddux, whose 20 victories and competitive drive for the Chicago Cubs last year earned him the National League Cy Young Award as pitcher of the year, was plucked as a free agent from the jaws of the New York Yankees to join an Atlanta starting rotation that was already the best in the league in 1992.

The man who brought Maddux to Atlanta was John Schuerholz, one of baseball's new breed of general managers who are equally at home with a balance sheet or a batting average, and whose Ivy League looks and manner form a striking contrast with the folksy idioms of Cox, a weatherbeaten, tobacco-chewing, Oklahoman.

Yet the combination of the dynamic executive and the experienced baseball tactician has worked wonders. Before Schuerholz arrived in October 1990 and began to spend the wealth of the club owner, Ted Turner, on some shrewd free-agent signings, the Braves had been the doormats of their division for four out of the five previous years. As owner of CNN and two other cable channels in the US, Turner has bottomless pockets.

Sharing Cox's belief that 'If you got good pitching, go get some more,' Schuerholz tracked Maddux's negotiations with the Yankees over the winter. 'We had asked our scouting staff to evaluate not only his competitive characteristics, how he pitches under pressure and how he deals with failure, but how he handles himself as a person,' Schuerholz said. 'We got glowing reports.' Just when the Yankees thought they had their man, Schuerholz made his move.

Atlanta offered Maddux dollars 28m ( pounds 18.5m) over five years, dollars 6m less than New York's best bid. But the 26-year- old Texan liked the chance to slot into a rotation of Tom Glavine, a 20- game winner last year, Steve Avery, the strike-out specialist John Smoltz and Pete Smith, and he disliked the rudeness of the Big Apple. 'In Atlanta,' he said at the time, 'when two people meet at the door, they don't race each other to get through first. They step back. We play this game for money, but there are a lot of other things to consider.'

One up for Southern charm. But all the current talk of Atlanta's Fab Five will not help them win the NL West, as Cox acknowledged: 'You don't put your roster out there and the other team lays down. You have to play.' Which is where Leo Mazzone, the team's pitching coach, comes in. His job is to fine-tune these turbocharged pitchers' arms, to get them strong enough to throw fastballs at 92mph over a 162-game season without working them so hard they seize up half- way through.

Mazzone, who like Cox is a member of baseball's old school, spent 18 years travelling the minor league backroads as player and coach, including a spell in the Mexican leagues until they discovered that, despite the Zapata moustache, he was not a Mexican, and threw him out. For the past two years he has groomed Atlanta's pedigree pitching stable. Asked what made the current staff so special, he said: 'Besides being great competitors and great talents, they know how to simplify their game. They throw a fastball, a breaking ball and a change of speed, three pitches that they can command. Many coaches make this game more difficult than it is, so their pitchers end up with five or six pitches that are mediocre, instead of two or three that are quality.'

So what impression had the new member of the club made on him? 'He's got an attacking temperament,' Mazzone said. 'He's got real presence at the mound. He's not looking for coddling, he's got some fire in him.'

The first-time visitor to the Braves clubhouse might easily overlook this aggressive competitor with fire in his belly. The sign on the wall reading 'I go from zero to bitch in 1.1 seconds' does not seem to refer to Maddux, and the players making the most noise are the trio from the Dominican Republic - Cabrera, Rafael Belliard and Ramon Caraballo - who are taunting Tony Tarasco, a rookie outfielder. 'Oye Tabasco,' they saucily chant.

In fact Maddux and Glavine are across the room, sitting quietly like college boys at adjacent lockers. Glavine has a box of colour photos of himself, and he painstakingly adds a short message and signature to each. 'To Brian, best wishes, Tom Glavine . . .To Cameron, good luck, Tom Glavine. . .'

'We get a lot out of the game, it's nice to put something back,' he says. 'Some guys like to do it, some don't'

Maddux agrees that he is not one for locker-room high jinks and, almost in a whisper, explains that the pitcher's job can be quite a lonely one within the team game. 'The night before I pitch I like to go away and do my homework on what I'm going to do with each hitter,' he says, 'see who's hurt me in the past and who I've had success with, work out a game-plan. Then on the day of the game I try to relax, maybe I'll sit around in the clubhouse and just listen but not participate.'

Suddenly Maddux has plenty to listen to, as some of the more boisterous Braves stage their clubhouse party piece. Marvin Freeman, a relief pitcher, wearing a Mickey Mouse hat, is umpiring a bizarre version of the children's playground game, Scissors, Paper and Stone.

In the blue corner, playing for the outfielders, are Nixon and Sanders, stripped to the waist and with shaving cream on their upper lips and nipples; in the red, representing the pitchers, Avery, choirboy looks accentuated by a long red CCCP cape and a rubber glove pulled over his head so the fingers stick up like a Disney stegosaurus, and Kent Mercker, dressed only in jockstrap and Cossack hat.

Thump, thump, thump go the competitors across a tabletop. 'First game to Leon Jerkinov,' Freeman yells.

'It's a happy club,' Maddux observes. 'That all comes from the manager. He sets the attitude in the clubhouse. That's why people seem to have a good time here.'

A good time for the Braves promises a lean time for the rest of baseball this year.

----------------------------------------------------------------- HOW THE FOUR DIVISIONS IN THE MAJOR LEAGUES ADD UP IN 1993 ----------------------------------------------------------------- AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST ----------------------------------------------------------------- Any World Series winner that lost the free- agent talent that Toronto did last winter (pitchers David Cone, Jimmy Key and Tom Henke, plus Dave Winfield and Kelly Gruber) might expect to pay dearly, but the Jays did pick up Paul Molitor's hitting and Dave Stewart's pitching, and they may hold on in a weak division. Expect Baltimore and the New York Yankees to run them closest. The Orioles filled a gap by signing Harold Reynolds at second base and play host to Fernandomania II, as former Dodger great Fernando Valenzuela tries to turn back the clock at Camden Yards. The Yankees have been thoroughly overhauled, and with owner George Steinbrenner back, it will be anything but dull in the Bronx. Cleveland's young team seemed set for a resurgence before last month's boating tragedy killed pitchers Steve Olin and Tim Crews. Cecil Fielder will once again be the big shot on a poor team in Detroit, the veteran Andre Dawson cannot lift Boston on his own, and Milwaukee will dearly miss Molitor. ----------------------------------------------------------------- Prediction: Toronto Blue Jays ----------------------------------------------------------------- AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST ----------------------------------------------------------------- Oakland manager Tony La Russa performed miracles to get his injury-prone team into last year's play-offs; this time the A's depleted pitching staff may put the task beyond even his skills, though he still has the Big Bopper, Mark McGwire, to duel for the home-run title with Fielder. The Chicago White Sox may at last live up to their promise. Bo Jackson will sadly be just a sideshow, but with Ozzie Guillen fit and dominating the infield, and plenty of hitting, the only doubt is their pitching depth. Minnesota kept Kirby Puckett, and added Dave Winfield to a potent line-up, Kansas City will hope to improve now that David Cone has returned to his home town to anchor their pitching, while Texas, despite Jose Canseco's promises to win it all and Tom Henke's solidity in the bullpen, will not get the Nolan Ryan World Series that the romantics are hoping for in the great pitcher's farewell season. New manager Lou Piniella won't enjoy it, but his Seattle side will be scrapping with the California Angels in the basement. ----------------------------------------------------------------- Prediction: Chicago White Sox ----------------------------------------------------------------- NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST ----------------------------------------------------------------- Yet again the New York Mets look to have the best line-up on paper, but Dwight Gooden is past his prime, and Bobby Bonilla is bound to fall out with the crowd at Shea sooner or later. The Chicago Cubs will miss second baseman Ryne Sandberg (broken wrist) and shortstop Shawon Dunston (back injury) early on, and the departed Greg Maddux even more. Philadelphia's blue-collar collection are on the rise, with the pugnacious centre fielder Lenny Dykstra talking of batting titles and more. Discounting the new Florida Marlins, whose lack of pitching will keep the scoreboard staff busy at Joe Robbie Stadium, it is really anyone's division now Pittsburgh have fallen to earth after losing their National League MVP Barry Bonds, not to mention second baseman Jose Lind and pitcher Doug Drabek. Montreal, a speedy outfit with perhaps the best outfield in the game, could make it a fairy-tale year for manager Felipe Alou and his son, rightfielder Moises. St Louis also have a well-balanced look, with deep pitching and a strong bullpen. ----------------------------------------------------------------- Prediction: Montreal Expos ----------------------------------------------------------------- NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST ----------------------------------------------------------------- Who can stop Atlanta? The Braves are not only strong in pitching, they have exceptional defence, plenty of batting power and in third baseman Terry Pendleton a player who is always capable of turning a game on his own. Cincinnati will not have owner Marge Schott, or Schottzie, her dog, to worry them, and have added Don Smiley to an impressive rotation of Jose Rijo, Tom Browning and Tim Belcher. Except for San Diego, ravaged by cost-cutting measures, and the new Colorado Rockies, where the Mile High Club will take on new meaning for home-run hitters in their Denver stadium, all the division's teams made improvements. Los Angeles signed Tim Wallach at third and Jody Reed at second to help their appalling defence, Houston's young hopefuls gained two strong arms in Doug Drabek and Greg Swindell, and San Francisco's new owners broke the bank to sign Barry Bonds. They and new manager Dusty Baker will shortly discover, however, that their paucity of pitching is even more costly. ----------------------------------------------------------------- Prediction: Atlanta Braves -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photograph omitted)

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