ATLANTA When Greg Maddux goes to the mound tonight at Turner Field, he won't be just a four-time Cy Young winner.
He'll be the highest-paid player in baseball history.
Maddux wears that crown after the Atlanta Braves signed him to a five-year, $57.5 million contract extension Sunday that will pay him a $3 million signing bonus and an average of $11.5 million annually.
"It's been a great five years and I look forward to another five years," Maddux said. "They made me a nice deal and I'd be a fool not to take it."
When news of Maddux's signing was flashed on the center field Matrix board in the first inning of Sunday afternoon's Braves-Marlins game, the sellout crowd rose and gave him a standing ovation. The signing means the Braves will keep their Fab Four rotation of Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Denny Neagle intact through the year 2000.
"Who wouldn't want to play here?" Maddux said. "What was important is playing in a city I like and for an organization that does what it takes to win. Nobody likes to lose."
The Braves raised the salary ceiling dramatically by paying Maddux, who could have become a free agent after the season, $1 million more per season than Albert Belle, who becomes the game's second highest-paid player.
"We had no choice in the matter or else we wouldn't have him," general manager John Schuerholz said. "Would you believe it if I said we saved money in the negotiation? (Maddux) said this is what I want and for how long, we contemplated those issues and decided that even though it was a very, very expensive proposition, it was the right thing to do."
Maddux will be paid $9 million next year, $10 million in 1999, $10.5 million in 2000 and $12.5 million in 2001 and 2002.
Since 1991, Maddux has set the standard for pitchers, winning more games than anyone else in baseball. During his first four years with the Braves, he became the only starter in club history to have an earned run average of less than 3.00 in four straight seasons and has at least 15 wins in 10 consecutive years.
Maddux, who became the only pitcher in history to win the Cy Young Award four straight times when he did it 1992-95, has a career record of 180-107.
"I think (signing Maddux) was on everyone's Christmas list," Smoltz said. "This is awesome. It's as good a news as winning a World Series. I think it gives us a great foundation for the next how ever many years."
It's a very expensive foundation. Since signing Smoltz last winter to a four-year, $39 million deal with an option for a fifth year, the Braves have spent $162.25 million to sign Tom Glavine ($43 million) and Denny Neagle ($22.75 million) and Maddux.
"What we said all along is the strength of this club has historically been the pitching," Schuerholz said. "We are going to do whatever is necessary to keep a championship team together."
Before the Braves signed Maddux, they had to settle the question of whether to make a pitcher the game's highest-paid player. After reviewing Maddux's four-plus seasons with the club in which he has posted an 85-32 record and been judged the National League's best pitcher three times, it wasn't difficult to describe him as the game's best, pitcher or player.
"There's an argument that over the last five years he's performed better than any player in the game," Schuerholz said.
Said agent Scott Boras, "I think Greg has achieved a status of a (Michael) Jordan or a (Wayne) Gretzky)."
Fearful that negotiations would be a distraction during the season, Maddux was pleasantly surprised by how quickly a deal came together. Boras presented a proposal to the club last week and with little dickering, the numbers were worked out.
"We basically went in and made them an offer and they accepted," Boras said. "The money element was important as far as placement among his peers. Greg asked me what he could get in free agency and I said, `More.' The pitching market went up $3 million today and that's a big step for baseball. This does not happen if there wasn't a shortage of pitching."
With Maddux on board, there's no shortage of pitching in Atlanta.
BLAUSER NEXT: With Greg Maddux's signing Sunday, the next free agent the Braves have to worry about is another Scott Boras client, shortstop Jeff Blauser. The two sides haven't begun formal negotiations, but they have exchanged some ideas about a new deal.
"We've had brief discussions about Jeff," Boras said. "We're going to address it."
Blauser, who signed a three-year, $10.5 million contract following the 1994 season, is having his best season since hitting .305 with 15 homers and 73 RBI in 1993. He's batting .316 with 14 homers and 58 RBI and probably will seek a four-year deal that averages $5 million per season.
"My standing is I'm eligible to go anywhere after this season," Blauser said. "Whether it be Lake Lanier or Lake Erie. I don't know what their intentions are. There's been no discussions about me as far as I know. If there have been it's a pretty well-kept secret."
Blauser was limited to a pinch-hitting appearance Sunday after injuring the big toe on his left foot when Craig Counsell slid into him in the seventh inning of Saturday's game. He almost lost the nail and drained it of fluid Sunday morning, an operation he performed himself.
I'm a field surgeon," Blauser said.
WOHLERS WILD: Mark Wohlers has never been a control pitcher, but this season his control has been more spotty than usual.
The closer issued 21 walks in 771/3 innings last year, while striking out 100, but those numbers have climbed dramatically this season. Already he has surpassed his walk total, with 28 in 511/3 innings, and has 69 strikeouts.
Wohlers has no explanation for his wildness and he's not worrying about it.
"The bottom line is when Bobby (Cox) gives me the ball to end the game I don't care about walks," he said. "How I get there is all that counts. I don't care if (my walk total) triples from last year's total as long as I continue to make progress and do my job."
So far, Wohlers' walks have not cost him anything more than extra pitches. He is third in the league with 28 saves in 31 opportunities and his next save will be the 100th of his career.
Last week the right-hander went back to using his windup, rather than working exclusively from the stretch. He hopes the change helps slow down his delivery and sharpens his control.
"When I start rushing things because I get overly excited, that's when I lose command," he said. "Some people say pitching out of the windup is more deceptive. If it will help, why not?"
BEAT GOES ON: Following Friday's ball-scuffing confrontation between first base coach Pat Corrales and Marlins reliever Dennis Cook, Marlins manager Jim Leyland criticized Corrales for not standing in the first base coaching box Saturday.
Corrales laughed and responded Sunday, saying, "Where I stand has no bearing on the game. The only reason I stand there is to keep from being hit. `Course, that's why Cook does (scuffing) too. He doesn't want to get hit."
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