The Magnificent Mr. Maddux
If you follow baseball at all, I’m sure you’re aware that two of the anchors of the Braves’ 90s dynasty, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, were recently inducted, along with manager Bobby Cox, into the Hall of Fame. As an old school and longtime Braves fan, I couldn’t be happier, and I look forward to seeing John Smoltz and Chipper Jones inducted as well in the very near future.
I should clarify a few things here at the outset. First off, baseball’s Hall of Fame is the single most ridiculous institution in America this side of Congress. There’s no argument you can make that can convince me that the sport’s all time hits leader, a seven time Cy Young winner, and the single season and all time home run leader should be kept out, when the likes of Gaylord Perry (who admitted to actively cheating throughout his career) and Ty Cobb (who may have been the most despicable human being ever) are in there. And save me all of the righteous indignation over how great and pure baseball used to be and how the modern players using “performance enhancing drugs” are ruining the game. Ruth, Gehrig, and Williams were wonderful baseball players, no doubt, but they played all or most of their careers at a time when some of the best players in the country were kept from competing against them due to the color of their skin. And the players in the 50s, 60s, and 70s? Do some research sometime about the prevalence of illegal drugs, especially amphetamines, and their use during this time. Stories of teams using pots of “leaded” coffee in the clubhouse to help players recover to play an afternoon game after a long night out abound. If anything, I’d argue amphetamines are as great a “performance enhancer” than many of the other, more infamous PEDs that are out there.
Do I think Clemens, Bonds, et al used PEDs? Sure I do. Do I think they should be in the HoF? Absolutely. Put them in, list their accomplishments, and put the statement “accused of PED use” or something similar on their plaque, and let the public make their own judgements. What frankly disgusts me though is the fact that many of the same sportswriters who did nothing but sing the praises of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa during the home run chase in 1998 are now the same folks who have presented themselves as the guardians of the game’s integrity and morality. And I don’t see MLB returning any of the money it made off the games played by accused PED users either. So all of you save me your petty moralizing, please. (As for Pete Rose and Joe Jackson, that’s another story for another day. Needless to say they both belong in the Hall.)
The other thing you need to know, is that when I say I was an old school Atlanta Braves fan, I mean it. I’m talking the days of Jeff Burroughs and Glenn Hubbard and Bruce Benedict and Phil Niekro playing in front of crowds of 5,000. When the Greenville Braves came to town I went to games religiously and saw the likes of Ron Gant, Steve Avery, and Tom Glavine before anybody knew who they were. I was there when TBS was just a regional cable network in the Southeast and Chief Knocka Homa’s tepee ruled Fulton County Stadium and Bob Horner wielded the sweetest right hand power stroke you’re ever likely to see.
Do you remember the “Rick Camp Game?’ I do. Watched every minute of it.
I was in the crowd when we beat the Twins 14-5 in game 5 of the 1991 World Series to go up 3-2. All we had to do was go to Minnesota to finish off the Twins and win the Series. Only we didn’t. (Kent Hrbek and Chuck Knoblauch are two of my least favorite players ever to this day because of that series.) And anyone who was with me watching Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS will back me up on this: It wasn’t Sid Bream or Francisco Cabrera that won that game for the Braves. My series of rally caps, rituals and lit candles made it happen. There was chanting. And some minor voodoo and other kinds of dark arts involved. I regret nothing.
I just spent five minutes sobbing into my keyboard listening to that legendary Skip Carey call, so I hope that establishes my Braves bona fides for you. That being said, of all of the amazing (and flat out awful) things I witnessed, the most amazing of all was a spring training bullpen session by Greg Maddux in 1999.*
One of the great things about living in Florida is baseball spring training. Not the games themselves so much any more, but the early workouts when pitchers and catchers report. The vibe is really loose, there are no crowds to speak of, and you can basically sit a few feet away from some of the great players in the game and watch them perfect their craft. On this particular afternoon we spotted Mr. Maddux walking over to a bullpen mound and took up a spot just behind him, which gave us a perfect view to watch him pitch. He was, as you might expect, completely methodical, throwing multiple pitches to the same location over and over before moving to the next. In some ways it was unremarkable. He never snapped the glove of the catcher with a 95+ fastball. Never threw a curve ball that dropped off the table or a slider that darted into the dirt. He never threw out of a windup, always out of the stretch. And I doubt he broke 88 mph on the gun that day so early in the season.
But here’s the other things that never happened: the ball NEVER crossed the middle of the plate. And the catchers glove rarely ever moved from it’s original target. And when it did, Maddux reacted like he gave up a home run in a World Series game. And, most amazingly of all, the ball never took a straight line from his hand to the target. There was always some kind of late movement, even if only a couple of inches. But the ball always ended up in the same place, whether it broke left or right or down a few inches. It may sound boring to you, but I was mesmerized. Now trust me, it was really fun over the years to watch guys like Mark Wohlers and John Smoltz and Steve Avery pop the catchers mitt with fastball after fastball and throw sliders that seemed to break a foot and a half in a split second. (The sound a John Smoltz pitch made when it hit a mitt was unearthly. The epitome of a “heavy” ball that mad hitters cringe.) Even Tom Glavine could bring it up to the plate in the low 90s when he needed to. Nothing compared, however, to the elegant simplicity and sheer consistent ruthlessness of that one bullpen session. It was what put Maddux in a class of his own.
His numbers speak for themselves. The wins, the insane ERA and WHIP numbers, the other-worldly control (favorite stat: Out of 20,421 batters faced, only 133 3-0 counts. Just 0.0065%.). But it took seeing something like that up close to really make you appreciate his greatness, drive and nearly unparalleled genius. Watch any one game he pitched and you may walk away underwhelmed, but it was impossible to watch that bullpen session and not be amazed. That’s why he is and will probably always be one of my favorite players ever and I don’t think we’ll ever see another one like him in our lifetime.
*The other most amazing thing I ever saw on a baseball field was a one hop, ground out to the pitcher hit by Bo Jackson in 1986. Seriously. He played for the Kansas City’s AA team in Memphis (the Chicks? I think.) and they played a series against the Greenville Braves while he was there. He hit a sharp, one hopper to the pitcher, who fielded it cleanly and threw immediately to the first baseman, and barely got the out. I’ve never seen anyone get to first base so quickly, especially from the right side of the plate, and had the pitcher hesitated just an instant he would have beaten it out. That goes down as one of the most amazing athletic feats I’ve seen in person in any sport, not just on a baseball field. Just stunning.