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Professor Maddux Can’t Pass Those Final Exams

Wed., Oct. 8, 1997, midnight

Someone broke into the chemistry lab before Professor Maddux had everything set up Tuesday night. He was still in the back, checking his calibrations and fine-tuning the equipment when all the test tubes started to break.

Greg Maddux wasn’t wearing his glasses at the time, but, if he were, he would have peered over them at Moises Alou, who had the temerity to jimmy the narrow window of opportunity and create the first crashing havoc.

“Terribly disturbing,” the professor might have said, although he looked, as usual, terribly undisturbed.

Maddux is the best baseball pitcher we have to savor in this era of anatomically, if not anabolically, correct slugsters who bash the ball around yards that have been downsized just as they have pumped up.

He is great not just because of what he can do now, in the way that Kevin Brown, Tuesday night’s starter for the Marlins, is great, but because Maddux has sustained his excellence until it seems he has always been here, a modest man with a modest delivery and an immodest record.

How then to explain Tuesday night’s explosion - a 5-3 loss to Florida - in the laboratory?

This has unfortunately happened before and just as unexplainably. People are starting to wonder how someone can be brilliant all semester only to have these problems around final exams. The professor hasn’t said, but he might be wondering, too.

The Braves, taken collectively, have faced the same sort of questions. Atlanta has been preeminent in the regular season, winning six straight division titles. But only one World Series win has resulted from four appearances. There is no sound as loud as the mighty when they fall and there is nowhere to hide the body.

“I’ve always said the best thing you can do is win it one year and then don’t show up for the next six or seven years,” pitcher John Smoltz said earlier this season. “How many people take shots at the Minnesota Twins? Nobody. They’re forgotten. That’s just the way sports has become. It’s a situation where greatness is no longer being a consistent winner. You’ve got to win it all every year. But we’re the Atlanta Braves, and we have nothing to be ashamed of.”

It might help if the Braves were underdogs every now and then. They took a step in that direction Tuesday night, surrendering the home field advantage in this series. The Florida Marlins can make it to the World Series without winning another road game.

Professor Maddux should be scratching his head this morning. He had a decent array of pitches at his disposal, but the control that is his constant companion took off the early innings.

He gave up a hit and a walk, was victimized by an error by Fred McGriff that loaded the bases with two out in the first inning, and then kept missing the plate by a razor’s edge with Alou at the plate. He forced a pitch down the middle and Alou smacked it past Chipper Jones at third to clear the bases.

Maddux gave up a 400-foot shot to Gary Sheffield in the third that fell just past Kenny Lofton for two bases and an error before he walked another batter. Two more runs would score in that inning.

This was truly a mystery. Maddux usually walks batters with the same frequency of a cat taking a swim. In more than 200 innings this season, he walked just 20 batters, and six of those were intentional.

“I don’t feel any more relaxed than I did in any other postseason,” Maddux said on Monday. “You’re still anxious, excited, nervous … a lot of adrenaline. You want to do well and you want to win probably more than you have ever wanted to win before. Maybe I just hide it a little better. I don’t know.”

The professor now has a 5-6 record in 12 league championship series and World Series starts. Tuesday night’s loss won’t hurt his earned run average - all five runs charged to him were unearned - but it will further his reputation as a pitcher whose success has too often been inversely proportional to the gravity of the game.

It doesn’t seem fair to say Greg Maddux - the most consistent of his generation - isn’t a pitcher who succeeds in big games. But it is starting to seem accurate.

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