WORLD SERIES: ATLANTA BRAVES vs. CLEVELAND INDIANS : Don't Let His Looks Fool You

He's supposed to be baseball's best pitcher. Not now. Ever.

His admirers don't worry whether he's better than Hideo Nomo, Randy Johnson or Roger Clemens. That goes without saying. The question is whether he's better than Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Dizzy Dean, Satchel Paige and Sandy Koufax. Whether he belongs to the ages. He should be painted on a ceiling in a chapel. He should be a statue in the park.

Just tune in to what a normally restrained writer had to say of him in a national magazine of late: "The best right-handed pitcher born in the past 100 years walks among us today. His career is a masterpiece, available for all to see every fifth day or so as he works atop the pitching mounds of the National League ballparks. The rest of us, should we recognize our good fortune, could be eyewitnesses to genius. Did you see Van Gogh paint? No, but you saw [this man] pitch."

Now, who are we talking about here? Matty? Johnson? Bob Feller? Hubbell? Dizzy Dean? Lefty Grove? Maybe they should frisk this guy for wings. Check around his house for flying saucers. See if there's a gal named Lola in the background or a guy who lights cigarettes with his fingers.

To hear his admirers tell it, there should have been a star in the East the night he was born. He doesn't need the team bus. He walks to work on the Chattahoochee River.

You hear about Gregory Alan Maddux and your pulse begins to race, your palms sweat and you figure you're going to be awed. This will be some 6-foot-6 Apollo in a baseball suit, rippling muscles, jutting jaw, a flinty look in his eye. Mr. America with a glove on. At the very least you expect, he'll look like something that turns into a wolf after dark. The man with the golden arm.

Then you meet Greg Maddux and at first you're surprised. There are those glasses. His hands look normal sized. So does he. If he was wearing a suit and ringing your doorbell, you'd figure he was selling insurance. Or vacuum cleaners.

But the pitches will give him away, you figure. They will glow on the way plate. Or maybe you can't see them at all, only hear them. The fast one will be Mach One. You'll hear the sonic boom. The curve will look like something on an ocean wave.

Then he pitches--and you might want your money back.

The fast one you could clock with an hourglass. It wouldn't even be a good changeup for Koufax. Oh, maybe 85 m.p.h. If he muscles up.

The curve? Well, I wouldn't call it that. More of a slow fastball. With a wrinkle. A slider, some would call it.

Not a terrorist's assortment of weapons. You get the feeling Maddux is betting a busted flush out there. He's a guy going through Indian territory with a box of matches and a screwdriver.

And you don't beat a lineup like the Cleveland Indians with mirrors or deuces. This is baseball's "Murder One." A cast of characters right out of your worst nightmare. Serial killers with the bat. America's most wanted.

So, when they came out there opening night of the 91st World Series Saturday night, to get at Maddux, you almost couldn't bear to look. It was Little Red Riding-Hood going to Grandma's, Nathan Hale ascending the gibbet.

But, hold the flowers. Keep your sympathy. Save your cards.

The Cleveland lineup went up there licking its lips like lions after a carcass. The Indians looked at that stuff Maddux was throwing and they couldn't wait to get at it. They came out of the dugout swinging. Visions of home runs danced in their heads.

Maddux merely stood on the mound and looked at them bemused. He watched them dig in, root their bodies, swing the bat menacingly--then he just reared back and threw it up there with a "Here, hit this!" attitude.

They couldn't. It was Greg Master. He was one pitch ahead of the batters all night. The Cleveland juggernaut got exactly two (count 'em) hits off him all night long.

The ball kept coming at them from a direction--and in a location--they hadn't counted on. By the fourth inning, they were trying to hit on tiptoe. They should have come to the plate in a tutu. They looked more like ballerinas than .300 hitters.

The best hitters in the game, the guys who won their division by 30 games over the nearest pursuer, who won 100 games in a shortened season, were overmatched by a guy who looked as if he were pitching batting practice.

It is a thing Maddux does best--remain underrated. Oh, he gets the Cy Young Award ever year. But that's because he wins more games than anyone else in the game, and not because he looks good doing it. It kind of embarrasses him.

He likes to be unnoticed. He's like the baby-faced guy at the end of the table who keeps seeing the bet and then at the end says innocently, "Are these any good?" as he drops four aces on the table.

"It was the most masterful job of pitching I have ever seen," said an awed Cleveland manager, Mike Hargrove, at the end of Game 1 Saturday evening. "For a guy who doesn't have overpowering stuff and still gets the ball by you--well, I have never seen anything like it."

The only thing Greg Maddux has in common with Koufax is that their names end in "x." But the pitcher has a lot in common with another often overlooked great--Grover Cleveland Alexander. The great Alex never relied on the sonic fastball or that storied public enemy, the hellacious curveball. He relied on placing the ball exactly where he wanted it and not where the batter wanted it. So did Satchel Paige, who used to make bets he could throw a ball across a stick of gum.

Maddux is what pitching is all about. He's a throwback. He's like a great golfer who never hits the ball 325 yards but is never off the fairway or over a green. He's the whole story of pitching and it's not that far-fetched to compare what he does to Van Gogh and what he did. They are both artists. The game he pitched Saturday night to give Atlanta a lead could hang in the Louvre.

Wee Willie Keeler once said the art of batting was "hitting it where they ain't." Well, with Greg Maddux, the art of pitching is to get them to hit it where it ain't. He does that better than anybody. He is all-time. Just ask Cleveland.

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