Some tension is inevitable, isn't it? Put four highly successful
young pitchers on the same team, Cy Young-caliber starters in
their prime, and ask them to get along--indeed, even to help
each other--without stepping on toes or messing up psyches.
Watch anxiously as they juice their handicaps to swipe a few
bucks on the golf course or wager on who will find the quickest
shortcut home from practice or simultaneously cast their lines
into a lake during spring training to angle for the biggest
fish. Cross your fingers as they keep track all season long of
who accumulates the most hits during batting practice and who
throws the most first pitches for strikes during games. Surely
someone along the way will make a wisecrack that can't be
forgiven; somewhere in all that competition the one-upmanship
will get out of hand.
But in three years in Atlanta, it never has. In fact, the Fab
Four of the Braves--Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, Steve Avery and
John Smoltz, reading from lefty to righty to lefty to
righty--should be remembered as much for the total inviolability
of their friendship as for the near-invincibility of their arms.
None engage in macho posturing; each expresses an abiding
respect for his peers. And each has an impregnable sense of
self-assurance that doubtless comes from being one fourth of
one of the best starting rotations of all time.
"All the competition stuff that we do, we do for fun--it's a way
for us to keep our edge," Glavine has said. "This is so we don't
get complacent. It's never a situation where we're rooting
against each other. You never see us compete on the pitching
mound as far as who is going to get the most wins. It's always
the lighter side."
In a sense, the Fabs constitute a noble and good-natured club of
which any pitcher would be proud to be a member. That goes a
long way toward explaining the sentiment that then-25-year-old
righthander David Nied expressed in 1993 after Colorado plucked
him from Atlanta in the expansion draft: "It was an honor just
to be part of that staff for two months." And also what the
fifth starter, southpaw Kent Mercker, had to say in April 1994
about having to wait seven days for his next turn right after
throwing the Braves' first complete-game no-hitter since Phil
Niekro's 21 years ago: "Being the Fab Four Plus One doesn't
bother me in the least."
October 31, 1995
Avery, especially, knows the strength of the quartet's
camaraderie. In 1995 he endured the toughest regular season of
any member of the foursome in its history together, going a
mystifying 7-13 with a 4.67 ERA. But he never felt less than
supported, less than an integral part of the whole, less than a
usual target for a group that rags even harder than it throws.
"Everyone was patient with me when I pretty much stunk all
year," says Avery, who rebounded to win both of his postseason
starts: the National League Championship Series clincher against
the Reds and Game 4 of the World Series.
Just as they meshed off the field, so too did the foursome's
various approaches on the mound coalesce in '95. For a
combination of power and finesse there was the 29-year-old
Glavine (16-7, 3.08 ERA), the World Series MVP whose 91 wins
since '91 are the most in the majors (Maddux has 90). For the
ultimate in accuracy and craftsmanship there was Maddux (19-2,
1.63), also 29, a cinch to run away with an unprecedented fourth
straight Cy Young. For preternatural poise there was Avery, a
65-game winner at 25 who came to be known as Poison Avery in
winning the MVP of the '91 NLCS. And for sheer stuff there was
the 28-year-old Smoltz (12-7, 3.18), the MVP of the 1992
playoffs who battled back from off-season elbow surgery.
They are an odd assortment in other ways. Whereas the 6'3"
Smoltz and the 6'4" Avery have the long-limbed look of pitchers,
Maddux says that "there are average men who would look better in
a uniform" than Glavine and himself. Whereas Maddux is
indisputably the greatest of the four, he is also the only one
without any personal hardware from the postseason. While Avery
(first round, 1988) and Glavine (second, 1984) were drafted by
the Braves, Smoltz was acquired in a 1987 trade with the Tigers
and Maddux as a free agent from the Cubs in '92. While Smoltz is
the best golfer and the worst hitter, Avery is the worst golfer
and the best hitter. Such is the synergy that makes a good
rotation click: Its elements may be diverse, but it remains
And, in the Braves' case, remarkably dependable. The four have
pitched 6,483 2/3 major league innings without going on the
disabled list, and in their three seasons together only two have
missed a start: Smoltz, two (one in June 1994 because of a
suspension and one in August 1994 because of bone chips in his
elbow), and Maddux, one (because of the flu in August 1995).
Each has at least once co-led the NL in starts, and Maddux has
topped the league in innings pitched for five straight years.
"There's less than a handful of games that we haven't been in,"
Glavine says. "But that's what people expect around here. And we
stay on each other pretty hard about it."
That much was evident in early '93, when someone suggested that
a slumping Glavine might be getting weary. Smoltz built a dummy
out of gloves and bats; dressed it in Glavine's uniform, hat and
cleats; and laid it in front of the lefty's locker with a pillow
under its head. The sign posted beside it read IT'S THE SECOND
HALF, I NEED MY REST.
The staff's durability has been due largely to the training
regimen of 47-year-old pitching coach Leo Mazzone. The antsy
image of Mazzone projected by the dugout camera during
games--arms crossed, hands under his armpits, rocking back and
forth like a parent whose teenager is out long past curfew--is at
odds with his steadfast belief in his system of low-intensity
but frequent throwing between starts to keep up good flexibility
and mechanics. "My greatest satisfaction comes from the fact
that our pitchers believe in what we're doing, and you see the
results when they go to the post," Mazzone says. "Every pitcher
on the staff is treated the same. If a new guy joins the staff,
we ease him into it, but it's not a hard sell because of our
"The things we've gotten so far away from in baseball are
running, fielding, hitting and throwing," Met manager Dallas
Green says. "We're using all the mechanical means to prepare
ourselves. We're using the bicycles, the StairMasters, the
weights and all the other stuff. Leo's kind of system is
refreshing to all of us who have been in baseball a long time."
In addition to Mazzone's common sense, Atlanta's fearsome
foursome had another weapon at its disposal in '95: 6'4",
207-pound relief ace Mark Wohlers. Since 1991 the team had gone
through a succession of suspect closers--Alejandro Pena, Juan
Berenguer, Mike Stanton, Jeff Reardon, Steve Bedrosian and Greg
McMichael. Atlanta's inability to preserve leads not only cost
the Braves when it counted (from 1991 to '93, 12 of their 18
postseason losses were by one run), but it also preyed on the
minds of manager Bobby Cox and the starters. All that changed,
however, when the 25-year-old Wohlers finally seized one of the
many chances he had been given to nail down the stopper's job,
almost single-handedly turning around Atlanta's season while
giving the rotation a huge lift. As Mazzone recalls, "More than
one time they said to me, 'We just have to go eight, then give
it up to Wohl-Daddy.'"
And was it mere coincidence that Wohlers's emergence occurred
shortly after his locker was moved next to Maddux's? It was
Maddux who encouraged Wohlers to get the first pitch over,
Maddux who urged him to "concentrate on making good pitches,
because it's the only thing you can control."
The breakthrough for Wohlers, Atlanta's eighth-round pick in
1988, came in a May 14 appearance against Cincinnati, in which
he threw one scoreless inning. "I'm sure we were getting beat,
otherwise I wouldn't have been in there," he says. "What
happened was, I went out there with a game plan. It was the
first time I'd done that and then followed through with it.
Eventually the confidence started to build, then it just seemed
to get better and better out there." After eight more
encouraging outings over the next three weeks, Wohlers was given
the closer's job on June 5. From then until Sept. 3, he
converted 21 straight save opportunities and wound up with 90
K's in 64 2/3 innings; only ex-Red Rob Dibble has ever had a
higher ratio of strikeouts to innings pitched in a season. And
thanks largely to Wohlers, the Braves yielded only 30
ninth-inning runs all year. "He's the horse, he's got the big
shoulders," Smoltz says of Wohlers. "We can all ride him."
And they did--into baseball lore. Only two four-man rotations in
the game's long history can be said to approach the greatness of
the Braves': the Indians' of the early 1950s (Hall of Famers
Early Wynn, Bob Feller and Bob Lemon, along with Mike Garcia)
and the Orioles' of the early 1970s (20-game winners Jim Palmer,
Mike Cuellar, Dave McNally and Pat Dobson). But Cleveland's crew
appeared only in the '54 World Series, when it was swept by the
Giants, and Baltimore's also had a solo Series shot, losing four
games to three to the Pirates in '71.
Atlanta's rotation, on the other hand, would thwart first the
potent Rockies and Reds in the '95 NL playoffs, losing just one
game to Colorado and sweeping Cincinnati, and then beat
Cleveland, baseball's best-hitting team in the last two decades,
four games to two in the World Series. In 1994 Feller recalled
being asked the previous year, in which the Braves would lose
the Series to Toronto, where Atlanta's staff would rank in the
alltime pantheon. "I told them to call me in October," Feller
said. "I didn't get any calls."
In Game 4 of the '95 Series at Jacobs Field, Feller threw out
the ceremonial first pitch, then watched Avery, the rotation's
alleged weak link, shut down the Tribe 5-2, helping to propel
the Braves to their first championship in 38 years. Feller's
phone should be ringing now.