One secret to a Hall of Fame pitching staff: Golf


One secret to a Hall of Fame pitching staff: Golf

Greg Maddux, for all time, will brandish no team insignia on his Hall of Fame plaque. His choice. Wearing the cap from either of the two teams that most fully framed his career — the Cubs and the Braves — risked offending someone.

“By picking neither, you pick both,” Maddux said, showing his King Solomon side.

There was one other easy way around the issue had the lords of Cooperstown had only thought outside the chalk lines of their own sport. How about an everlasting bronze of Maddux in a golf visor?

Beyond the obvious connections of team, titles and town, there was one other important element that bonded members of the Braves Hall of Fame-bound rotation: Golf.

Would Maddux and Tom Glavine have made the Hall of Fame without all the off-day rounds at the country’s most famous courses? Would John Smoltz be on deck to follow those two to Cooperstown, perhaps next year, had he not devoted so much of his spare time to organizing dream golf outings for his guys? Probably.

But the journey wouldn’t have been half as fun.

It was one day during the height of the Braves pitching dynasty — circa 1990s/early 2000s — as Maddux was strolling down the fairway of Golf Magazine’s No. 1-ranked club in the world, Pine Valley (N.J.), when he was struck by a dimpled revelation.

“I remember saying to one of the guys, ‘You know what? It’s a good thing we can throw a strike. Because if we couldn’t, we wouldn’t be walking down this fairway right now,’ ” he recalled.

Because they all had the good fortune of playing for Bobby Cox, golf on their off days — especially on the road — became an integral part of their in-season routine.

Even if the Braves almost lost their left-handed linch pin to a mysterious drowning in the process.

As Smoltz crossed a footbridge to a green at the Country Club of the South one afternoon, he was startled by the sound of a loud splash behind him. The graceful Glavine, the multi-purpose athlete who was drafted by hockey’s L.A. Kings in 1984, had tumbled off the bridge into a creek.

“All I remember seeing when I turned around was one club sticking out of the water and a head coming up,” Smoltz said. “He had completely gone under, lost the club in his left hand and saved the club in his right hand.” (Both men insist no beer was involved).

Mark Wohlers was not called in to finish the round. Glavine was near enough to his home that he rushed back, changed into something dry and returned for the last couple holes.

“Golf was like an addiction to us,” said Steve Avery, another former Braves starter on the golfing rotation.

The cast on the course changed slightly according to the comings and goings of players and each day’s pitching schedule, but the Foundation Foursome would have to be Smoltz, Maddux, Glavine and Avery.

So many of their best memories were formed away from the ballpark, on some of the most exclusive green space imaginable. Smoltz was the concierge, the man with the little black book of contacts who could get his group through almost any gate, the one who would make all the hotel reservations and rental car arrangements for those overnight excursions on off days.

“Smoltzy has accomplished a lot in this game, but I don’t think he gets enough credit for his ability to coordinate golf,” Maddux joked.

There were so many ultimate golf getaways during their seasons together that each can call up a best memory without overlapping another.

Maddux: “Playing Medinah (outside Chicago) one day, when it was closed, having two golf carts and the whole course to ourselves. Getting hungry after four or five hours on the course and all of a sudden the cook rolls up on a cart with cold cuts and we’re sitting there having a picnic on the 14th hole of Medinah.”

Glavine: “We got into New York one night and drove out to Long Island. Played the National Golf Links in the morning, went in for lunch and they basically brought out a platter of lobsters. We played 18 holes at Shinnecock and after a lunch like that and with little sleep, it was difficult to say the least.”

But they bravely carried on.

Smoltz: “We stayed overnight at Pebble Beach (the Braves had an off day in San Francisco) and played Cypress, Spyglass and Pebble Beach in a day and a half. The weather was perfect. It was everything you could imagine.”

Turns out that one of the best parts of being a Hall of Fame caliber pitcher is all the great golf you get to play.

Seeing how these pitchers thrived on a regimen of pitching and golf it’s a wonder more teams haven’t borrowed the practice. Cox only asked that each not play on the same day he pitched and even that got stretched when Smoltz went to the bullpen. Yet so many clubs banned their pitchers from playing at all during the season, adopting the foolish stance that it would sap their energy and focus.

When pitching coach Leo Mazzone left the Braves for a job in Baltimore, he was surprised to find that management banned golf. Before he arrived in Atlanta is 1993, Maddux risked a $500 fine from the Cubs if he played in the summer. Yet on one of his first road trips with the Braves, it was the manager who cornered him in the hotel coffee shop and asked, “What are you doing here, why aren’t you out playing golf?”

“Did it keep me from going nuts after losses? Did it keep me mentally fresh to be able to come to the park and practice better or do my job better? Maybe. Maybe not,” Maddux shrugged.

“Yeah, there was some therapeutic value to it,” Glavine said. “When you were doing what we were for nine months out of the year, it gets monotonous sometimes. You need to have the outlet to get away from it.”

Golf was the not-so-secret weapon that the most decorated pitching staff of its generation utilized to build a special camaraderie and zest for competition of all kinds. Theirs was a unique culture of both pitching and putting. Most people retire in order to find time to play more golf. These guys in retirement have been challenged to find the time to play as much as they used to.

And golf, fittingly, will mark the celebration when the first wave of Braves from their golden age of pitching age hits the Hall of Fame plaque gallery. Before his enshrinement, Maddux has planned 18 holes with his father, his brother and his son.

“Three generations of Madduxes on the golf course, can you imagine?” said Maddux’s father, Dave. “We’re all going and we’re all going to have a great time.”

As it should be. All along the journey from Atlanta to Cooperstown, these pitchers had packed their clubs and brought them on the road and played together as a family.

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