VERO BEACH, Fla. -- Greg Maddux had just completed the second inning of a game against the Yankees last July 2 at Yankee Stadium when home plate umpire John Hirschbeck stopped him as he stepped across the foul line.
Puzzled, Atlanta Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone watched from the dugout as the pair engaged in conversation.
"I asked Maddux when he came in what Hirschbeck wanted," Mazzone said. "Maddux said he just wanted to tell him, `You're as good as advertised.' It was a compliment, but Maddux was upset because he said, `Great, I have to live up to my own expectations, my teammates' expectations and now the umpires' expectations, too."'
It's Maddux's fault that expectations have risen so high. He's been the major league's most dominant pitcher of the decade, winner of four Cy Young awards, three earned run average titles and 139 games. He's set the standard so high it's virtually impossible for him to meet it.
"I think he's the greatest pitcher I've ever seen," Mazzone said. "He stands above the rest."
Maddux started his sixth season with the Braves on Sunday afternoon against the Dodgers, working two scoreless innings in Atlanta's 5-3 loss at Holman Stadium. It was vintage Maddux, seven hitters faced, six retired, 21 pitches and only seven missed the strike zone.
"If there was one thing I was working on it was location," he said. "I think every time I missed I was up and that's not good. But I had movement on all my pitches and that's good. When I don't have movement, that's when I'm in trouble. I'd rather have movement than location, though I'd rather have both."
Most of the time he has both and National League hitters don't have a chance. He has posted 10 consecutive seasons with at least 15 wins, has the lowest ERA over a six-year span of any pitcher since World War II, having compiled a 2.14 ERA since 1992, and is a six-time All-Star.
"It's the greatest total of good, quality, consistent innings you can find anywhere in the history of the game," Mazzone said.
Little wonder expectations have risen to mythic proportions. It's news when Maddux doesn't win, it's headlines when his ERA isn't below 2.00. There's no other pitcher like him in the game today and few others like him dating back to the days of Cy Young himself.
"Bobby (Cox) told me he knew a pitcher like him -- Catfish Hunter," Mazzone said. "That's pretty good company. You're always going `Holy Mackerel' when he pitches. It never stops. It's amazing. I never will get over my amazement every time Maddux throws a pitch."
Maddux, of course, treats expectations like he treats all other distractions. He ignores them. One of his greatest strengths is his ability to focus on a single goal and block out everything else.
"Honestly, I don't worry about (expectations)," he said. "You block it out. It's not hard if you practice. I have enough to worry about thinking about where my slider or my changeup is going. I worry about what matters and I'm only worrying about how the ball comes out of my hand. I don't let anything affect how the ball comes out of my hand."
Maddux needs 16 wins to reach 200 and if his success continues for another five years he'll be a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame. But he's not even thinking about enshrinement, doesn't even want to hear talk of it.
"I could walk away right now and be totally happy with what I've done in the game," he said. "I'm on extra credit. I've gotten more out of this game than I ever thought was possible and this game is still giving me more. I've got a World Series ring, I've accomplished a lot of personal goals and I've made more money than I ever thought I would."
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