Denny Neagle had been with the Atlanta Braves for a week, and
although he had already started one game for them, nobody on the
team had asked the lefthander to show his stuff. Then third
baseman Chipper Jones bellowed, "Hey, why don't you do that
train of yours?"
Neagle nodded, smiled, threw back his head and let loose. From
somewhere deep inside him came a rumbling "Whoo-whoooooo" that
was a dead ringer for the train whistle that blares over the
public address system whenever the Pittsburgh Pirates mount a
rally at Three Rivers Stadium. "I was just waiting for someone
to ask me to do it," Neagle says. "I wanted to cut loose a
little bit. I did the train and it was like, 'O.K., guys, what
else do you want?'"
Before we delve further into the peculiar sights and sounds of
the 29-year-old Neagle, a disclaimer is in order. Cincinnati
Reds reliever Stan Belinda, Neagle's former Pittsburgh teammate,
says Neagle stole the train whistle from him, a fact Neagle
cheerfully concedes. Does it matter that Neagle's train whistle,
which he used to practice at home and is trying to pass on to
his wife, Jennifer, isn't original? Isn't imitation the
sincerest form of flattery?
The point is: Can Belinda purse his lips and make noises so rude
and realistic that they can clear the back of a bus? Can he
mimic the stentorian voice of Ernie, the former visitors'
clubhouse man in Cincinnati, so precisely that the assistant
clubbies would come running whenever they heard it? Can he laugh
maniacally like Jim Carrey in the Ace Ventura movies? Can he do
a spot-on Kramer during his classic Seinfeld debate on boxers
versus briefs? ("I can't stand it, Jerry. I'm flipping, and I'm
flopping.") Neagle does all those turns, earning a big league
reputation for impressions. "Denny will certainly entertain
you," says Jones, "whether you want to be entertained or not."
Maybe Neagle wouldn't be such a hoot if he hadn't had a National
League-leading 20 wins and a 2.62 earned run average at week's
end. Acquired by the Braves in August '96 for pitcher Jason
Schmidt and two minor leaguers, Neagle has pitched brilliantly
in his first full season with Atlanta, even putting together a
scoreless stretch of 27 innings in late July and early August.
In his past two starts Neagle, who won his 20th game on Sunday,
hasn't allowed a run in 16 innings. The guy's a regular Mel
Blank. For all the noise, however, he must have the quietest
20-3 record in history. In a season brimming with superior
pitching performances--Roger Clemens's 20-win revival with the
Toronto Blue Jays; Randy Johnson's two 19-strikeout games for
the Seattle Mariners; Greg Maddux's unmatched artistry, which
resulted in a five-year, $57.5 million contract extension with
the Braves in August--Neagle's dominance has flown under the
radar. But considering that he takes a number in the Atlanta
rotation behind Cy Young winners Maddux, Tom Glavine and John
Smoltz, maybe it shouldn't be surprising that Neagle's
accomplishments have been accompanied by little fanfare.
"It's not like we have the market cornered on pitching," Smoltz
says, "but [the depth in the rotation] is what makes it easy.
Greg makes it easier on Tommy, and Tommy makes it easier on me,
and I make it easier on Denny. This is where he wants to be. On
any other staff, every start Denny made would be magnified.
Here, there's no pressure on him to be the Number 1 guy."
The multivoiced Neagle truly is the Fourth Tenor. He is a
pitcher who doesn't have no-hit stuff, who isn't going to fan 19
unless you give him a couple of weeks, who isn't going to
negotiate nine innings in 78 pitches (as Maddux did earlier this
season), who doesn't throw a fastball that hisses on its way to
the plate. When your best pitch is a 76 mph changeup, your
pitching is a murmur.
"Denny's more in the Glavine mold," Jones says. "There are power
pitchers who can make a mistake and get away with it; Denny
can't make a mistake. When you get guys like him who win games
with an ERA no higher than 3.00 or 3.50, that shows a real
mastery of pitching. With all due respect to someone like
[Montreal Expos star] Pedro Martinez (box, page 84), who's
unreal, if you're looking for the best illustration of the art
of pitching, you find it in this clubhouse."
The comparison to Glavine is as natural as it is deceptive. Both
are lefties. Both feature fastballs and changeups. Both throw to
spots. The locations, however, are as similar as Atlanta and
Nome. While Glavine is continually probing the elasticity of the
outside corner, Neagle works inside as often as he does away,
even throwing curves and sliders to righthanded hitters, which
Glavine studiously avoids. "The big difference is that I don't
throw as hard as Glavine does," says Neagle, whose fastball tops
out in the mid-80s. "Those few less miles per hour force me to
come in more and establish both sides of the plate."
Even Braves catcher Javy Lopez was sucked in at first by the
similarities in the styles of the two southpaws. After Neagle
arrived from Pittsburgh, Lopez began calling his games as if
Glavine were on the mound, but Neagle was loath to correct him.
He had been a big deal in low-rent Pittsburgh, with 27 wins over
the previous two seasons, but now he was keeping company with
the most exceptional starting rotation in decades. Sharing a
staff with Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz was intimidating enough
without wondering if away, away, away was an Atlanta pitching
philosophy. Offering an impression of a train whistle was one
thing. Offering an opinion on pitching was quite another.
Neagle kept his thoughts to himself, and while pitching coach
Leo Mazzone thought his new lefty was swell--his notes to
himself on Neagle's six regular-season starts with the Braves in
'96: "good," "pressing," "one off-inning," "good plus," "good"
and "ass backwards"--Neagle said he was never completely
comfortable. Mazzone wrote that Neagle was "sharp" in the
infamous Game 4 of the World Series against the New York
Yankees, but Neagle couldn't get past the sixth inning, and the
Braves wound up blowing a 6-0 lead.
"I was disappointed in myself after the season," says Neagle,
who finished 2-3 with the Braves and didn't get a decision in
two postseason starts after going 14-6 with Pittsburgh. "I have
five years in the major leagues. That's enough for me to make
adjustments. But I kept throwing the same pitches."
If Atlanta was going to be his home through 2000--he signed a
four-year, $17.5 million contract extension during the
winter--Neagle would have to be himself. In spring training,
location, location, location were the first three subjects he
and Mazzone broached with Lopez. Inside. Outside. Once Neagle
settled on where he was going to live around the strike zone, he
decided to stop going to his change so often and throw his
fastball more, to heighten the effect of his out pitch. Finally
he settled into another pattern that most assuredly is a part of
the Braves' pitching culture. "How did we make Denny fit in?"
Smoltz asks. "We took him to the golf course and beat his brains
Neagle was expected to replace the accomplished and popular
Steve Avery not only in the rotation--Avery signed with the
Boston Red Sox as a free agent last winter--but also in the
foursome. Smoltz, a two handicap, usually plays against the best
ball of the other three, and Neagle, a seven, can keep up. The
only hole in his game is that Cy Young Award, a severe drawback
on the 19th hole. "They keep kidding me that I have to win one,"
Neagle says, "so I'll get to [autograph all the memorabilia]
Neagle is a slave to routine. On the days he pitches in Atlanta,
he and Jennifer sneak off to a matinee. They go Dutch treat: She
buys the tickets; he buys the plain M&Ms and the giant Coke.
("Two straws," Jennifer reports. "He doesn't like my lipstick on
his straw.") They usually go to action films, though if Neagle
had only one flick to see, it would be The Sound of Music. If
you think trying to sneak an 85-mph fastball past Mark McGwire
takes a certain amount of jam, what about letting teammates know
that you prefer the singing Von Trapps to Mel Gibson and Danny
The Sound of Music has been a staple in Neagle's life for nearly
20 years. Every year after the Thanksgiving dishes had been
cleared, his grandmother Muriel would slip a tape of Julie
Andrews and her fellow English-speaking Austrians into the VCR
and the family would gather around. Neagle wasn't much of a
reader growing up in Gambrills, Md., but movies fueled his
imagination. "I let myself go at the movies," says Neagle, who
put a theater in the basement of his suburban Atlanta home. "I
would hear dialogue and memorize it, and I always had a knack
for imitating the voices. I would always put myself in the
actor's role and wonder what I would do if I were him. Like how
would I act if I was one of those Von Trapp kids that the Nazis
"I'd run away, too. There's no way I'd put up with all that Nazi
If this is shtick, at least Neagle comes by it honestly. His
father, Denny Sr., has been a traveling salesman in the
Baltimore-Washington corridor for 25 years, putting in 30,000
miles a year pushing frozen foods and catering services and
supplies to restaurants, colleges and country clubs. The elder
Neagle has the same ready laugh, the same quick cadence to his
speech as his son. You need a little patter to make those sales.
Of course it doesn't hurt business when your son is mowing them
down on TBS every fifth night. "You know, three or four chefs
told me that Denny got screwed last night," Denny Sr. said the
day after his son had left with a 2-1 lead in the eighth inning
before a bullpen meltdown gave Pittsburgh a 5-2 gift, "but I
told 'em that Denny's only had three complete games, so he's
getting help somewhere." The loss ended a streak of 133
victories when the Braves led going into the ninth. Neagle has
been known to rearrange the clubhouse furniture when the fates
mock him, but he too was surprisingly calm. After all, the
Atlanta lineup has been generous in its support for him in 1997,
scoring an average of 5.8 runs through his first 31 starts.
As long as Maddux, who was 18-4 with a 2.31 ERA at week's end,
has a cushion over Neagle in ERA, and Martinez (16-7, 1.78 ERA)
and Darryl Kile of the Houston Astros (17-6, 2.42) continue
their spectacular seasons, the Cy Young will probably stay
beyond Neagle's grasp. Still he has joined at least one elite
club. "I feel like I've already complemented the other three,"
Neagle says. "If you want to call it the Big Four.... "
His voice trails off; the gleam leaves his eyes. For a moment
Neagle is as serious as he gets when he's not on the mound.
GOOD, BUT NOT GOOD ENOUGH
The Braves' Denny Neagle (above), who was 20-3 with an .870
winning percentage at week's end, could become only the 11th
pitcher to have a winning percentage of at least .850 (minimum
15 victories) since 1956, the year the Cy Young Award was first
handed out. Of the 10 pitchers to hit that mark, four failed to
win the award. Here are the four pitchers. (Until '67 there was
only one Cy Young winner for the major leagues.)
Year PITCHER, Team Record WINNER, Team Record
1959 ROY FACE, 18-1, .947 EARLY WYNN, 22-10, .688
Pirates* White Sox
1978 BOB STANLEY, 15-2, .882 RON GUIDRY, 25-3, .893
Red Sox* Yankees
1985 OREL HERSHISER, 19-3, .864 DWIGHT GOODEN, 24-4, 857
1988 DAVID CONE, 20-3, .870 OREL HERSHISER, 23-8, .742