Only seven pitchers in history have won more games than Maddux. When the Braves retire his jersey tonight and induct him into their Hall of Fame, it’ll just a precursor to the day he enters the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
The Braves honored him as soon as they could. Maddux, 43, retired in December and lives in his hometown of Las Vegas with his wife, Kathy, and their two children. The Chicago Cubs, the team he played for before and after the Braves, retired his jersey in May.
But like baffled hitters who used to walk away from the plate wondering what had just happened, Braves fans might look back at the baseball treasure they had and wonder the same thing. What just happened?
Opposing hitters didn’t know what Maddux was thinking from 60 feet, 6 inches away, nor did his teammates from the dugout. Even his Braves manager, likely bound for the Hall of Fame himself, didn’t try to think along with Maddux. “Heck no,” said Bobby Cox.
The rare few who hit Maddux well didn’t try to predict what pitch was coming; they reacted.
“Forget it,” said Braves hitting coach Terry Pendleton, who hit .300 against Maddux before becoming his teammate. “If his catcher couldn’t think with him half the time, what makes you think you’re going to think with him?”
The mystery suited Maddux. He always squirmed over questions about his success. Even now, he’s not sure what to say. His speech today at the Omni Hotel will be short.
“Still about a 30-handicap when it comes to that,” Maddux said last week by phone.
But during that call, Maddux began to give insight into what made him great, maybe now because hitters won’t benefit from the information. The son of a Vegas former poker dealer can lay down his cards.
Players and coaches always described Maddux’s baseball acumen as almost a sixth sense. Maddux might watch a hitter even as the hitter watched Maddux, but the pitcher always seemed to see more.
Something in a hitter’s stance, the off-balance swing he just took, or maybe something in his eyes told Maddux the batter was expecting a change-up outside. So Maddux threw a fastball inside, and the batter flinched as it tailed back over the edge of the plate for strike three.
But to Maddux, his powers of perception weren’t anything mystical.
“I just felt like I made an effort to do it,” he said.
He studied hitters. He tried to learn their every nuance. Even on days he wasn’t pitching, when others might gaze into the stands or grab a snack in the clubhouse, Maddux was on the bench watching.
He used video of hitters as a starting point. Then he pitched off what he saw them do from one pitch to the next.
“You always trust what you see,” Maddux said. “They might be covering [the outer half of the plate] better now than they were on the film. They might not be staying back on off-speed [pitches].”
If he hadn’t faced someone before, he would eye his warm-up swings. If the batter swung low, he probably liked the ball low. Maddux watched to see if the batter moved in the box. Sometimes he could tell the batter had stepped closer to the plate relative to an ad on the wall behind him.
The seat next to Maddux in the dugout was a popular place for teammates, curious what they could learn. They followed him into the clubhouse and loaded up couches in the lounge when Maddux charted pitches off TV.
Good hitters, such as Pendleton or Chipper Jones, became a resource. Maddux wanted to know what they thought in certain scenarios.
“He’d ask ... if you know his best pitch is his change-up, are you going to [wait] on that change-up the whole at-bat?” Pendleton said. “I said, ‘I know you’ll throw your change-up with two strikes.’ He said ‘OK, good. If I throw it to the right place, you’re still not going to hit it.’”
Calling his pitches
Maddux always had impeccable control of his pitches. He learned how to take advantage of that from his first pitching coach. The late Ralph Medar, a former scout, held weekly practices for high-schoolers in Las Vegas.
“At 15, Mr. Medar was teaching me how to throw balls,” Maddux said. “Everyone is talking about throwing strikes, and I get out there, he’s telling me to bounce curveballs and throw fastballs up and in.”
Dick Pole, who coached Maddux with the Cubs, taught Maddux the beauty of the ground-out.
“Dick always told me, you don’t have to strike him out, you just got to get him out,” Maddux said.
Once playing winter ball in Venezuela, Maddux had two runners on, one out, and powerful Cecil Fielder at the plate. He tried to strike him out on fastballs inside and fell behind 2-0. Pole came to the mound and told him to throw a fastball low and away to get the double play.
Maddux did and says the ball went through the shortstop’s legs, but the lesson stuck: Don’t get cute, take the two outs.
“I remembered that day for the next 20 years,” Maddux said. “You get in that situation, even with two strikes, you can still think double play.”
Maddux taught fellow pitchers what he knew, but only if they asked. Some went so far as to ask him to signal what pitches they should throw from the dugout. Maddux called a game for Braves rookie Bruce Chen in 1999. Chen gave up only a run in nearly eight innings to beat the Phillies that day.
Maddux called seven shutout innings for Brad Penny, a 10-year veteran, when they were both with the Dodgers.
“Dick Pole used to call my pitches from the dugout,” Maddux said. “I understood how it helped, how it gave me the confidence to throw that pitch. There are times when a guy needs help on the mound. Hey, help him out.”
Now that Maddux is retired and spending time playing golf with his son Chase, 12, and teaching his 15-year-old daughter Paige to drive, it seems a waste of a genius aseball mind.
He has thought about coaching some day, but for now is content to watch Chase play outfield with a club team.
“Sit in the stands,” Maddux said. “BS with the dads all day.”
Well, probably not BS.
Those dads are learning something.