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OFF THE MOUND: THE PERSONALITIES BEHIND THE PITCHES

By Donald E. Winbush, ChopTalk

Baseball's best pitching rotation is also one of its most fraternal and fun-loving.

"They're all good guys," says Greg Maddux, who joined Steve Avery, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine last season to form what is widely recognized as the game's most formidable rotation. "I think most rotations are pretty close," says Maddux. "Maybe because of the success of this club, ours probably gets more publicity."

Then, again, the chicken-orthe-egg question may apply here. Do individual accomplishments heighten the spirit of comradeship or is it the unique fellowship that gives a big boost to personal achievement?

For all the skill and seriousness of purpose each pitcher takes to the mound, the cheerful sibling-like rivalry of this bunch and the merciless razzing they heap on each other perhaps contributes as much to their success as any stuff they put on a baseball.

Last season, for the first time in this century, four Braves starters finished with a least 15 wins. Glavine was 22-6. Maddux was 20-10. Avery was 18-6. Smoltz was 15-11.

An invitation to talk a little about the '94 season, about themselves and each other revealed the comic conviviality that helps make this rotation distinctive. More than a few personal quirks and trifling flaws were revealed.

Family matters dominated the group's off-season. Steve and Heather Avery learned they are parents-to-be (due in July); Kathy and Greg Maddux celebrated the birth of their first child, daughter Amanda Paige; and John and Dyan Smoltz welcomed their second child, Rachael Elizabeth. For Tom and Carri Glavine, among the highlights of winter was a Caribbean cruise to celebrate their first wedding anniversary.

But the four also found time to keep in touch with each other. And, not surprisingly, they figured out a way to hook up for a few rounds of golf, their collective pastime of choice. Did that include some fierce but friendly competition? You can bet on it.

While they are careful not to place heavy emphasis on head-to-head pitching rivalry, Glayine says, "We compete in just about anything else that comes up hitting, fielding. We never seem to play anything just for fun. We bet drinks, dinner, something. Smoltz usually initiates it He's Mr. Competition. He'll bet on whether the sun is coming up tomorrow."

Smoltz does not deny it. "Competition seems to bring out the best in me--in everybody, I think. It's just fun, and we're competing for pride more than anything."

Smoltz admits that his competitive nature and his inclination to turn even the mundane matters into a game involving some kind of stakes "causes me to put myself in a lot of no-win situations." He shrugs. It's not like he has to walk around and twist arms to find betting partners. But when his performances come up short, Smoltz says, his buddies practically form a line to pile on. "Oh, they don't let me live anything down," he says.

Glavine counters, "But when things go wrong, Smoltz has always got a reason for it. He'll come up with something to explain it away."

What had clubhouse tongues wagging recently was Smoltz's mid-winter misadventures in the AT&T Pro-Am Golf Tournament at Pebble Beach, Calif. On nationwide television, Smoltz laments, he 4-putted one green; he also sent a ball sailing into the grandstands. The ribbing about it has been intense, leaving him little room for explanation.

If you believe Avery's impersonation of Mr. Ne'er Do-Well, competition among the starters is so stiff, "I usually have to do something pretty spectacular just to get my name mentioned."

So, to make sure everybody gets his due, we asked the pitchers to choose the player they believe is the most outstanding in several categories. Who among them, we asked, is most superstitious, the moodiest, has the best sense of humor, and is most disorganized?

"Superstition is not something you really want to talk about, is it?" Maddux questioned. "Probably Glavine," he says with no further prodding.

All other parties agreed, except Glavine. He suggested Avery. Intent on removing all doubt, Smoltz directed attention across the clubhouse to a cluttered locker bearing the name, GLAVINE, and whispered conspiratorially, "There are some things in that locker that haven't changed since this time last year.

Moodiest? "That's probably me," admits Smoltz, casting a vote for himself and winning the honor hands-down. He could not resist offering a few words of explanation:

"You know, with me, it's not really moodiness. It's just that when I get mad at myself, I keep it internally. I don't want to ruin anybody else's day. It used to be that when I was having a bad day, it took me four days to get rid of it. I'm getting better. Now it only takes me 24 hours."

Glavine and Smoltz teamed to elect Smoltz "most humorous." Maddux and Avery swapped tongue-lashings, each accusing the other of having an appetite for offbeat humor.

"Maddux has got that dry sense of humor" Avery says. "Sometimes he doesn't even mean to be funny. He just says something, and we all start laughing. He's just stupid, that's all."

Says Maddux, responding in kind: "I would describe Steve's humor as tasteless. Tasteless. For him, the grosser, the better"

For the Sloppy Joe Award, the tossup was between Avery and Maddux. In fact, each man surveyed his immediate surroundings and voted for himself. Maddux admitted, "Picking up is not something I do very often."

Finally, each player was asked to complete the statement: This will be the year that _________ finally figures out __________. Here is how each pitcher responded:

Glavine: "Smoltzie figures out that he is as good as everybody says he is. He'll win the Cy Young Award."

Smoltz: "Maddux figures out he really can't field very well at all (Maddux won his fourth straight Gold Glove in '93 despite leading major league pitchers in errors.)"

Avery: "All of them realize I'm the best hitter. Statistics don't tell everything. I get the hits when they count."

Maddux: "Avery finally learns how to 2-putt."

One thing they all agree on is that this is the year the Braves will "get the ring." Accordingly, their individual goals are modest and team-oriented: Stay healthy and competitive. Everything else will take care of itself.