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Class of 2014 should have strong Atlanta flavor

Former Braves Maddux and Glavine on Hall ballot for first time; Cox also up for honors @RichardJustice

It was early in the 2003 season when Astros manager Jimy Williams motioned for me to join him at the spot where he was hitting grounders to his infielders during batting practice a couple of hours before a game against the Braves.

"When you get a chance," he said quietly, "take a look in the other dugout and tell me what you see."

I saw Greg Maddux sitting alone, watching the Astros take batting practice. He seemed lost in his own little world, staring intently as one hitter after another took his cuts.

If you surveyed a thousand pitchers, you might not find three of them who took the time to watch opponents take batting practice. If you found three, there might not be a single one of them who'd admit to getting a useable piece of information.

Maybe Maddux didn't, either. We may never know. Later, when I asked Maddux about it, he gave pretty much his usual answer to such questions. He laughed the whole thing off and mumbled something about not having anything better to do.

To some of the people who know Maddux best, to those who played with him and against him, and to plenty of others, that afternoon offered a glimpse into how he did things.

Maddux simply was looking for any advantage. Were guys preparing for him by attempting to pull the ball? Or were they intent on slapping it the other way because he worked the corners of the plate as well as anyone ever has? Were there any Astros hitting the ball especially hard, hitting with confidence? Maddux had all the data handed to him before games, but he apparently also wanted to get a good look at the guys himself.

Preparation? Stories abound, including one from Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti. When Maddux joined the Dodgers in 2008, he was impressed that the club had prepared a scouting report detailing his every matchup against the other team's lineup. He ran his finger down through the seasons and stopped at a start several years earlier.

"Could you check this one?" Maddux asked.

In his mind, he'd remembered one particular at-bat differently than it had been recorded. The Dodgers had a staffer check. Sure enough, Maddux had gotten the guy out on a pitch different than the one that was in the file. He simply remembered.

"There's a reason the guy is going to the Hall of Fame," Williams would say later.

Indeed, he is. Maddux can circle July 27, 2014, on his calendar. Best of all, he's going to have some familiar company when he steps into the big hall to admire his plaque for the first time.

If things work out the way they ought to, the Hall of Fame's 2014 induction weekend is going to have a distinctly Atlanta flavor to it. Maddux is part of a dazzling class of players making their first appearance on the Hall of Fame ballot that was released today. So is Tom Glavine, Maddux's golfing buddy and former teammate.

Like Maddux, Glavine has a squeaky-clean reputation and an amazing resume. Maddux played 23 seasons and won 355 games, eighth most ever. Meanwhile, Glavine won 305 games, 21st most in history, during 22 seasons.

A candidate must receive 75 percent of the vote from Baseball Writers' Association of America members to gain election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. No players reached that threshold in 2013. Second baseman Craig Biggio (68.2 percent), starting pitcher Jack Morris (67.7 percent) and first baseman Jeff Bagwell (59.6 percent) are the top returning vote-getters from last year's ballot. Results of the 2014 election will be announced on Wednesday, Jan. 8.

Maddux and Glavine could be joined by Bobby Cox, their Atlanta manager, who is on the Expansion Era Committee ballot. With 2,504 victories (the fourth most in history), Cox would also seem to be a slam-dunk choice for next summer's induction weekend.

Wouldn't you like to be a fly on the wall when they get together to swap stories? The three of them were around for most -- or all -- of Atlanta's record 14 straight division titles.

In this era of parity, it seems unlikely we'll ever again see a team go to the playoffs 14 seasons in a row. The Braves had dozens of key contributors through the years, but Cox, Glavine and Maddux are at or near the top of the list.

A year after voters declined to give any player the 75-percent vote needed for induction, the 2014 ballot has four first-timers -- Maddux, Glavine, Frank Thomas and Mike Mussina -- who would seem to be virtual slam dunks.

Managers Tony La Russa, Cox and Joe Torre -- the third-, fourth- and fifth-winningest managers of all-time -- seem likely to make it as well.

If all seven of them get in, and if deserving holdovers like Curt Schilling, Alan Trammell, Edgar Martinez, Biggio and Tim Raines make it, we could have a joyous celebration of baseball next summer.

There's no way to predict what voters will do. Schilling, Biggio, Trammell, Martinez and Raines should already be in, thus allowing voters to more fully examine Jeff Kent, Mike Piazza and other more borderline cases.

But grousing about Hall of Fame balloting is for another time. Here's to Maddux and those 355 career victories and four National League Cy Young Awards and 18 Gold Gloves. Here's to honoring his artistry and preparation and commitment to being the best there ever was. Most of all, here's to a terrific induction weekend.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.

Craig Biggio, Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, Mike Mussina, Frank Thomas