No kidding, Braves thrilled with McDowell

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The pressure will come soon enough for Roger McDowell. First he has to dispense with all that congestion.

A week into his new job as Braves pitching coach, McDowell looks like the "before" portion of a NyQuil advertisement. His temples are throbbing, his eyes are puffy, and his sinuses are more clogged than Interstate 4 during spring break.

But with so many hands to shake, relationships to establish, schedules to plan and drills to supervise, there's no time to break in slowly. So he arrives for an early-morning jog in hopes of sweating out the flu. And he graciously finds time for reporters who want to know how it feels to be entrusted with baseball's most successful pitching staff.

After a recent morning workout at Cracker Jack Stadium, McDowell answered all the questions patiently and thoughtfully before heading up the runway to the dugout.

"Excuse me," he said. "I have to go hack up a lung."

The Braves' clubhouse has been infected with a virus known as winning since 1991, when John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox led the team from worst to first in the National League West. Atlanta's run of 14 straight division titles has been driven by a pitching program that's produced nine 20-game winners and six Cy Young Award recipients, and won 10 ERA titles in a span of 15 seasons.

When pitching coach Leo Mazzone left to sign a three-year deal with Baltimore, Schuerholz compiled a list of 22 potential replacements. He talked to just one candidate before the Braves interviewed McDowell, who spent the last two seasons as pitching coach of the Dodgers' Triple-A club in Las Vegas.

Schuerholz received glowing reports from a dozen people who had come across McDowell in his capacity as a coach. Then McDowell met face to face with Schuerholz, Cox and front-office assistants Frank Wren and Dayton Moore, and the Braves concluded that a long, drawn-out search would be a charade and a waste of time.

Schuerholz cites McDowell's sharp baseball mind, knowledge of baseball mechanics, upbeat personality and advanced communications skills as factors in his hiring.

"And the fact that he had a [12]-year career as a major-league pitcher gives him credibility," Schuerholz said. "He really has a remarkable upside."

Shortly after the Braves hired McDowell, Schuerholz received a phone call from a friend and front-office colleague.

"Congratulations," the executive said. "You just hired the next pitching coach superstar."

That glowing report might come as a surprise to former teammates and coaches who pegged McDowell as too much of a flake to embrace a position of authority. It's not that McDowell lacked commitment to the art of pitching or a love for the game. He grew up in Cincinnati's northwest side idolizing Tom Seaver, and spent countless hours refining his pitching motion by throwing at the brick wall in an apartment complex on Rob Roy Drive. More than once, young Roger had to fess up to a broken window when his father, Herbert, returned from his job at the post office.

McDowell went on to pitch for Bowling Green State University and make 723 big-league appearances with the Mets, Dodgers, Phillies, Rangers and Orioles, but he's still known as much for his hijinks as his handiwork on the mound. McDowell perfected the "time-release" hot foot and the art of naked shagging (well before the gates opened, of course). He wore his uniform upside down and once donned a sombrero and cavorted with a mariachi band pregame at Dodger Stadium.

McDowell's most noteworthy pop-cult moment came when he appeared in a "Seinfeld" episode with Keith Hernandez. He still receives several royalty checks a year for his cameo, and dutifully hands them over to his wife. But the image of pitcher-as-sitcom character is one he'd prefer to shed in his transition to adulthood at age 45.

"Let's put it this way," McDowell said. "If the New York Mets don't have success, I'm an idiot and a clown." Since the Mets won a title with McDowell setting up Jesse Orosco, he's known as a free spirit who kept the clubhouse loose.

McDowell walks into an interesting situation as the successor to Mazzone, who carved out an impressive legacy in 15½ seasons with the Braves. J.C. Bradbury, a baseball fan and college professor based in Tennessee, conducted a study that showed having Mazzone as a pitching coach can lower a pitcher's ERA by more than half a run. But the numbers notwithstanding, the Braves didn't seem especially upset to see Mazzone leave.

When ESPN.com ran a piece last summer declaring Mazzone the greatest assistant coach in the history of sports, Cox declined to comment. Cox is uncomfortable with the spotlight and values the contributions of all his coaches equally. Mazzone, with his radio show, his books and his perceived flair for self-promotion, appeared to have outgrown the organizational dynamic.

Mazzone's throwing program clearly helped Atlanta's starters stay healthy, and his philosophy of pounding hitters down and away worked wonders for pitchers who could execute it. He helped revive the careers of Jaret Wright, John Burkett and numerous others.

But Mazzone can be abrasive, and his style doesn't resonate with everyone. Kevin Millwood clashed with him, Jason Marquis never warmed to him, and Mazzone failed to turn around Dan Kolb. For all his genius, Mazzone is not a big proponent of ironing out mechanical flaws with the benefit of new-age technology. You'd have a better chance of spotting Bigfoot in the video room.

"Leo's not quite the military type, but he's a little old-school," Braves starter Tim Hudson said. "I didn't mind it, but he could be a little intimidating to some of the young guys because of who he is and the type of personality he has. If you're a 21-year-old trying to pick his brain, it's tough when you have to wonder if you're asking him a question that's really stupid."

While Schuerholz believes Mazzone deserves a large chunk of credit for Atlanta's pitching success, he's more inclined to cite an organizational approach that encompasses everything from minor-league instruction to the training staff. Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz helped establish a professional culture for the pitchers in Atlanta, and Cox oversees it daily.

"The pitching coach's role is obviously very, very important," Schuerholz said. "But this isn't just about Leo and Roger. It's about the environment we have here."

The Braves are counting on McDowell to be a mentor and help nurture Atlanta's next wave of pitching mainstays. Kyle Davies, Anthony Lerew, Macay McBride, Joey Devine and the kids are aware of McDowell's portfolio, and it gives him a certain cachet. But they're even more impressed with his earthiness and approachability.

"I just got a chance to meet him, but I already feel like I can talk to him about pretty much anything, and he'll be open and give me an honest opinion," Devine said. "I think that's awesome."

As Atlanta's 2006 staff switches from a strong-willed to a more laid-back and folksy pitching coach, no one is better equipped for the change than Hudson. He broke into the majors in Oakland under Rick Peterson, a sensitive, new-age guy who's part Johnny Sain, part Dr. Phil. Then he spent a year under Mazzone, who's so salty and blue-collar he'd be right at home on the loading dock.

"One guy is in touch with his feminine side," Hudson joked, "and the other guy doesn't even know how to spell 'feminine.'"

McDowell, though, falls in a third category, as a reformed prankster who's graduated to the role of high school principal. He recalls the impact that Mel Stottlemyre had on him when he was a young pitcher with the Mets, and the insights he gleaned from Darold Knowles, Johnny Podres and Ron Perranoski in subsequent years.

Ask McDowell about the role of a pitching coach -- whether he's a psychologist or a mechanic or a supportive big brother -- and he nods his head in assent.

"All of the above," he said.

McDowell just knows he's glad to be here. His friend Jon Debus spent 25 years as a minor-league player, coach and manager before landing a one-year gig as Dodgers bullpen coach. McDowell retired as a player and spent four years in the minors before proceeding directly to his baseball fantasy job.

The erstwhile class clown is the new pitching guru in Atlanta, of all places. Who would have thought it?

"This is a pretty good office," McDowell said, looking out at the field. "There's not a better office in the world for me."

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" has been published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.