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Five is a familiar number in sports. High five. Five on five. Five Olympic rings. Except in golf. Fore! Plus fours. Foursomes. Most golf courses will not allow a fivesome. "But when you have the last two Cy Young winners in your group," says Atlanta Brave pitcher Pete Smith, "it isn't a problem."
"Is that a rule?" asks Greg Maddux, the newest Brave pitcher and the Cy Young winner in the National League last season. "I hadn't heard that. I always assumed we got on because the courses weren't crowded."
Wrong. This fivesome of Braves gets on because it may be the finest five-man pitching rotation ever assembled, and what Ted Turner has joined together, let no course ranger put asunder.
This fivesome gets on because it includes not only the last two Cy Young winners in the National League ( Maddux and Tom Glavine) but also the last two National League playoff MVPs ( John Smoltz and Steve Avery). It gets on because its fifth starter (Smith) is the finest fifth since Beethoven's, a man who went 7-0 with a 2.05 ERA after joining the rotation on Aug. 2.
This fivesome gets on because it is more exclusive than any country club where it might play. Charlie Liebrandt won 30 games for the Braves over the last two years. He was traded to the Texas Rangers for a minor league third baseman after Maddux left the Chicago Cubs to sign with Atlanta as a free agent last December. The first pick in the expansion draft in November was a 23-year-old Atlanta pitcher, David Nied, who went unprotected after finishing 3-0 with a 1.17 ERA for the Braves last summer. "It was an honor just to be a part of that staff for two months," says Nied. The former No. 7 starter for Atlanta is now the No. 1 starter for the Colorado Rockies.
This fivesome gets on because it won a combined 73 games last season, as many or more games than eight teams won last year. The five's combined ERA was 2.68 Maddux beat Glavine in the Cy Young voting. Smoltz was the league's strikeout leader. Avery was the youngest regular member of a rotation in the majors and became the only player in history to start eight postseason games before turning 23. As for Smith, well, he hasn't lost in the majors since July 15,1991, when he was beaten by... Greg Maddux.
That is why this fivesome gets on anywhere it wants—not because the courses aren't crowded. Hell, the courses are crowded. "Well," says Maddux, chastened, "we do let people play through when it's slow."
Live at Five
The Brave camp in West Palm Beach, Fla., was literally a media circus this spring: Among the journalists seeking to interview the pitchers were midgets from Jupiter (grade school TV reporters from Jupiter, Fla.) and a professional wrestler (filing incoherently for superstation TBS). Everyone, it seemed, wanted to go live at five with the five-man rotation and ask the urgent questions. For instance: Which one of them will win the Cy Young? "If we can divide the award into quarters, we may have four guys going after it this year," Brave manager Bobby Cox told the boys from The Nashville Network. The Nashville Network?
Interest in this staff is unprecedented, in large measure because the Braves may duplicate a feat last achieved in the Precambrian, precabled age of 1971. That was the season that the Baltimore Oriole rotation—Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, Dave McNally and Pat Dobson—begat four 20-game winners. (Only the 1920 White Sox can claim the same achievement.)