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This Artist Doesn’t Paint by Numbers

For openers, Greg Maddux gave the Dodgers the shirt off his back.

Now it’s time for Brad Penny to do the same for Greg Maddux.

Were you watching Thursday night? A dark and soggy game that belonged above some ancient fireplace in an expensive frame?

The Great American Pitcher in the Great American Ball Park?

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With apologies to James Joyce, Maddux’s Dodgers debut in Cincinnati was a portrait of an artist as an old man, the colors still vivid, the brush strokes still clear, the efficiency chilling.

Six innings, no hits, only one batter faced over the minimum, only four balls hit in the air, only two plays that even tested Dodgers fielders, a 3-0 victory that appeared effortless.

Maddux was so good, only God hit him. He wasn’t taken out by Grady Little, he was taken out because the sky was falling, his night interrupted by rain.

Yes, the Dodgers did the right thing by removing him from the game after the 46-minute delay. The 40-year-old was brought here for a two-month pennant race, not a two-hour sound bite.

Maddux didn’t complain. Maddux never complains. As greetings go, the night was about Maddux locking the Dodgers in a heartfelt, 1 1/2 -hour embrace.

And now it’s time for Brad Penny, on behalf of his teammates and organization, to hug Maddux back.

You may have noticed Maddux took the mound in his brand-new Dodgers uniform adorned with No. 36.

It’s a fine number. It was Casey Stengel’s Dodgers number. It was Don Newcombe’s Dodgers number.

But it is not Maddux’s number. It has never been Maddux’s number. Throughout his career, Maddux has worn No. 31.

Yep, that’s Penny’s number.

And, no, Penny has yet to give it to him.

No big deal, you say? A Hall of Fame deal, history says.

It’s common that when a certified future Hall of Famer changes teams, his new team gives him the number that has accompanied his career.

It’s a sign of simple respect. It’s a sign of common sense.

The thinking being, you don’t redecorate greatness.

There are 4,542 2/3 innings, 3,133 strikeouts, 327 wins in that number.

Not that any of this is more important than Brad Penny being in that number, but, well, come on.

Penny, and his 67 career victories.

As far as anybody can remember, Thursday was the first time in 21 years that Maddux has not worn No. 31.

“Tradition is a time-honored thing in baseball,” said Scott Boras, Maddux’s agent. “But apparently for some players, that’s been forgotten.”

Last week, Little eased the tension of Penny’s finger-pointing tantrum by announcing to the team that the pitcher would buy them dinner in Cincinnati.

Penny graciously did just that.

Giving up his number would be a goodwill feast.

First, it would show Maddux that the Dodgers are serious about keeping him beyond this season.

Second, if Maddux leaves anyway, then Penny has forfeited his number for only two months.

It’s a win-win situation for a guy whose image could use a few victories.

Penny earlier told reporters that he was trying to work out a switch with other teammates so he could give Maddux the number while obtaining another number that he liked.

That apparently didn’t work, but there have no been no ensuing explanations.

“It’s not even an issue,” Penny told The Times’ Steve Henson on Thursday night.

Maddux, who has survived all these years by staying above controversy, said the same thing when asked about the number.

“Whatever, man, I don’t care,” he said.

Little told Henson, “There’s a whole lot of people more upset by this than the players involved.”

Obviously, with the team using Ned Colletti’s new acquisitions to inspire them on a six-game win streak and new life in a pennant race, everyone in the clubhouse is smartly trying to steer clear of any intrigue.

Obviously, Maddux won’t quit over it. Maddux won’t even raise his voice over it. As Thursday indicated, the new number certainly won’t affect his pitching or his sub-zero temperament.

But his old number was important enough to him that he asked for it.

And it was important enough that some Dodgers employees also asked Penny to change.

Sure, it’s just another shirt.

And Greg Maddux is just another pitcher.

*

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.


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