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 Hi in?" Smoltz asks. "We took him to the golf course and beat his brains out."
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] they do."
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 Glover?
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 were after."
"I'd run away, too. There's no way I'd put up with all that Nazi crap."
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...."