ATLANTA -- Contrary to his image as a nerdy, scholarly craftsman, Greg Maddux followed the customary path to the mound.
Growing up, he could throw harder than most of the guys on his team.
"I threw cheese, man," Maddux said, flashing that sophomoric grin of his.
Then came his sophomore year at Valley High School in Las Vegas. The coach, Ralph Medar, didn't care what the radar gun showed. He was more concerned with what the ball did on its way to the plate.
"He told me that movement was more important than velocity," Maddux recalled. "He was the first one to teach me that. When you're 14 or 15 years old, all you want to do is throw hard."
Medar died during Maddux's senior year at Valley, denied the opportunity to see how brilliantly his prized student would apply those lessons.
Maddux took quickly to his gift for making a pitch dip and duck on its trip through the strike zone. Instinctively, he seemed to know what would happen if he fudged on his grip or slightly changed his motion. He homed in on his target and knew just how to get the ball there.
"Control is like running fast or jumping high," Maddux said. "Some guys are just going to have better control."
Well, this guy could probably knock the wings off a gnat from 60 feet, 6 inches. His mastery of the spheroid has been taken to almost absurd levels, evidenced by the current streak of 70 1/3 innings without allowing a walk.
Maddux already eclipsed the NL record and finds himself within reach of the major league mark of 84 2/3, set by Bill Fischer of the 1962 Kansas City Athletics.
"The thing about it," said pitcher John Burkett, one of Maddux's teammates with the Atlanta Braves, "he's winning, too. You can't just go out there trying not to walk people. If you do that, you'll get killed."
Indeed. Fischer, for example, went 4-12 with a 3.95 ERA during his record-setting season, although he also played for a dismal team.
Maddux is the first to admit that he doesn't go to the mound focusing merely on throwing strikes. Sure, he never wants to walk the leadoff hitter or give a free pass with two outs. But he knows that pitching is all about setting up hitters from the outer reaches of the strike zone - and beyond.
"I think it's perfectly OK to walk guys, if the timing is right," Maddux said. "Everybody talks about the streak. I'm more proud that I've only lost one game during that time. To me, that means more than not walking somebody."
In this era of the Big Unit, when every team is looking for the next 6-foot-10 fastballer, Maddux thrives by denying the norm. If he was coming along today, he might not even get a look from scouts who shy away from skinny guys barely 6 feet. Add a pair of glasses - which Maddux does when he's away from the field - and he comes across more as a college professor than an elite athlete.
"When you're on the outside looking in, you're wondering who is this nerdy guy," said outfielder Brian Jordan, who played against Maddux for several years before joining the Braves in 1999. "But when he gets out on the mound, he's the professor of pitching."
Maddux is also a certain Hall of Famer, with credentials that include four straight Cy Young awards from 1992-95 and 14 straight seasons with at least 15 wins, a mark eclipsed only by Cy Young himself.
Baseball keeps debating about the strike zone, but it doesn't seem to bother Maddux. All those gloomy prognostications before this season - when the men in suits ordered up more high strikes - have been swept away by a 15-6 record and 2.68 ERA.
Once again, Maddux is right in the middle of the Cy Young battle, providing the most serious challenge to Arizona's Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling.
While the Diamondbacks duo are poster boys for power pitching, Maddux is the candidate of those who prefer a more thoughtful approach from their moundsmen.
He was never a dominating presence - and that's even more obvious these days, when he's getting by with a 35-year-old arm that has nearly 3,500 innings on the odometer.
Maddux is past his prime - that was 1994-95, when he was a combined 35-8 with a stunning 1.59 ERA - but no one has a better understanding of how the game should be played.
From watching Maddux, Burkett learned that an inside fastball is the most effective weapon against a left-handed hitter - no matter how hard a pitcher throws. Maddux comes at those hitters with a fastball that fades away and a cutter that slices in on the hands.
"I used to like facing Maddux," Jordan said. "You knew you were going to get something to hit. I would usually swing at the first pitch. If he gets ahead in the count, you're in trouble because his ball moves so much."
Medar was preaching that message nearly two decades ago, but it took awhile to sink in with Maddux.
"He taught me that the best pitch is the moving fastball - the fastball that's not straight," Maddux said. "I didn't realize I had the best pitch in baseball until I was up here for two or three years."
Maddux is coming up on the two-month anniversary of his last walk, drawn by Florida's Charles Johnson on June 20. Since then, 275 hitters have been forced to earn their way on base - only 19 receiving even the slightest glimmer of hope with a three-ball count.
A few hitters grumble about Maddux receiving preferential treatment from the umps, but most concede he's earned the borderline calls as a reward for years of precision.
Still, Maddux said he's not concerned about breaking Fischer's record.
"I'm just trying to win," he said. "If I don't walk anybody, great. But it's more important to win than it is not to walk somebody."
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