At some point whenever the Greg Maddux stories begin, they inevitably veer from pitching into sorcery.
There are the tangible truths of his Hall of Fame career. The 355 victories — the greatest cache of wins since Warren Spahn won his 363rd game in 1965. The 18 Gold Glove Awards. The four consecutive Cy Young Awards.
And then there is the mysticism that attempts to explain those numbers. For without magic, how else could such a fellow, one who could pass a steroids test by simply taking off his shirt, be the best pitcher of a generation populated by chemically inflated sluggers?
There was the time his Braves manager, Bobby Cox, visited the mound, not necessarily to lift his guy but to suggest an intentional walk. Instead Maddux laid out his detailed plan for the next three pitches, ending with a foul pop-out to first. And proceeded to deliver exactly on the script.
Maddux would sit in the dugout and say things like, “The first base coach might have to go to the hospital,” just before a screaming foul drive almost embedded in the coach’s chest.
“Aw, for every time it happened,” Maddux says today of yesterday’s prognostications, “there’s probably 50 times it didn’t.”
But certainly there was something otherworldly about this one, no matter how Maddux wrapped up his particular genius in a plain brown wrapper.
Six-feet tall, weighing 170, prone to wear thick black-framed glasses on his off days, Maddux was in little demand on the fitness video circuit. In fact, he and fellow Hall of Famer Tom Glavine were famous for a Nike ad that parodied their modest builds. And forever carved into stone the phrase, “Chicks dig the long ball.”
It was knowledge more than an exceptional arm that served Maddux. He read hitters like a scholar reads Plato’s “Republic.” And he didn’t throw pitches by them so much as around them, relying on precision and movement that was later than closing time in his native Las Vegas.
And he was a human flash drive, storing memories of hitters in his brain forever. “I was taught that hitters remember success, they don’t remember failure. If they have something to remember you by, they’ll look for (what worked),” he said. Maddux, though, remembered everything, and used that to his ultimate advantage.
Maddux’s two nicknames covered the widest range, reflecting both his intellectual side — “The Professor” — and his primal competitiveness — “Mad Dog.”
For the record, Maddux was born to a serviceman, not a shaman. He and his older brother Mike, who pitched 15 years in the bigs and coaches Texas Rangers pitchers today, moved around the globe before their father retired and took a job dealing poker in Vegas.
Dave Maddux took his boys out in the dry heat and hit them grounders for hours on end, an investment that led eventually to the storage shed full of Gold Glove trophies. When their father decided there was little more he could teach his boys, they came under the influence of a former major league scout who had retired to the desert for his health. Ralph Medar rounded up the best players in the area and scrimmaged them a couple of times a week. Greg began when he was in seventh grade, always throwing to somebody older.
“He always played up (in age),” Mike said of brother Greg. “Some people you push, some people you pull. He got pulled up. That’s where he got that mentality to compete. When you play over your head, you try harder.”
It was Medar who first implanted the idea that a pitcher does not live by the radar gun alone. He always instructed the younger Maddux on the more subtle aspects of location and change of speed.
When Medar died, Greg, then a senior in high school, said, “Well, that takes care of my career.”
“Nah, I think your career is just starting,” his father reassured him.
“I saw him pitch in high school,” mega agent Scott Boras said. “He just had tremendous command. Sitting behind home plate, I saw the movement on his pitches. There certainly were a lot bigger pitchers in the draft but as I told Greg, the reason I was so interested in him was that he had a 100-mph mind.”
When Boras, who already had begun to make a name for himself, showed up at the Maddux front door, Greg immediately put his unpretentiousness on display. “What does a guy like me need with a guy like you?” he asked.
The Chicago Cubs spent their first pick of the 1984 draft on a strapping 6-foot-4 pitcher out of Morehead State, Drew Hall. He was destined to throw 195 lifetime innings for the Cubs, compiling a 9-12 record. The team’s next pick, built along common lines and signed for an $86,000 bonus, was headed for bigger things. He is the first of Boras’ many big-name clients to make the Hall of Fame.
Maddux always worked fast. He pitched as if there was a cab waiting for him outside the stadium, with the meter running.
Just as quickly, he rose through the layers of the minors. Only four months past his 20th birthday, he made his major league debut, the youngest Cubs pitcher in nearly two decades.
Maddux was delivered unto Atlanta after seven seasons in Chicago, the Braves beating the mighty New York Yankees in a free-agent tug-of-war for the 1992 Cy Young winner. The pitcher took less to stay in the National League and to play with a team he believed might be onto something good. Did we mention he was good at foretelling the future?
Yeah, Maddux had a pretty good start in Atlanta. Three more Cy Young Awards in his first three years, and the one and only World Series title in 1995. He became the centerpiece of the game’s dominant pitching staff, one that was the heart and soul of the Braves’ chain of division titles.
With every two-hour game Maddux authored, sportswriters flogged their deadlines and toasted him with the first beer of a shortened night. Up in the booth, Skip Caray time and again informed the listeners at home, “He is the best, folks. He is the best.”
His 11-year run in Atlanta marked the best of times both for the Braves and himself. His winning percentage here (194-88, .688) was markedly better than that in 14 Chicago-Los Angeles-San Diego seasons (161-139, .537). His ERA — 2.63 to 3.69 — was more than a run less.
Maddux mirrored the incongruities of a Braves dynasty that won big each regular season and so often fell out in October. In 19 NLCS and World Series starts, he was 6-11 (11-14 overall in the postseason).
He also was a man as certain of himself on the mound as Tom Hanks is in front of a camera. Why would he allow a catcher to call a single pitch? As Maddux saw it, he did nothing for four days between each start but prepare for the fifth day.
“It’s irresponsible not to call your own game,” he said. “When pitchers look in there to see what they’re going to threw, those are the ones who usually aren’t very good. They usually have great arms, but they have no idea how to pitch.”
Genius necessarily comes with its quirks.
Maddux routinely threw six warm-up pitches before an inning rather than the allotted eight. Always in a hurry to get the show going.
When he threw between starts, he did so most often out of the stretch rather than the wind-up. He knew that with men on base, that’s when he needed his most reliable control.
Some thought it odd Maddux kept a Cubs tag on his travel bag, until he was able to pick his out first among the sea of luggage whenever the Braves were on the road.
And while all around him, people painted Maddux as some sort of pitching Yoda, he was the most unimpressed man in the room. He steadfastly underestimates himself to this day. “If you have success, people think you’re smart,” he said. “Being able to locate your fastball makes you look like you’re much more intelligent as a pitcher than you are.”
And as for his clubhouse demeanor, his sense of humor always titled toward the juvenile, or more often just plain. In other words, he was a great teammate. “The more offensive, the funnier,” he said. “Nothing’s off limits. It’s 25 guys and no teacher, no principal.”
He did his denouement back in Chicago, and then on the West Coast when the Braves opted not to re-sign him at the age of 36, after the 2003 season. The parting was amicable.
The Maddux of the present is happily low profile. No network is benefiting from his insights (“Yeah, I had a couple offers but I’m not a frickin’ media guy, you know that,” he said). He parachutes in occasionally to consult with the Rangers’ minor league pitchers, doling out his knowledge by the spoonful.
Any full-time coaching gig will have to wait until his son, Chase, a pitcher, too, finishes his final year of high school. His daughter, Paige, is off at the University of San Diego.
Although Maddux seems in no hurry to give up the freedom to play golf whenever the mood strikes.
“I’m content doing nothing,” he said with a crooked smile. “You hear from time to time ex-players say that retirement is hard. I don’t think they’re doing it right.”
As for the Maddux of the recent past, the one who invoked talk of wizardry, that one still can strain our powers of description.
John Schuerholz, the eloquent Braves president who was GM in Maddux’s day, is one to wax long and elegant. In this case, he has reason:
“Pitchers don’t play Stradivarius violins, they don’t write opuses. But if they could have, that’s what Maddux would have done out there on the mound.”