COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – Greg Maddux is tan, reasonably fit and 48 years old. The glasses leaning on the brim of his cap – for reading, not blocking the sun – are the only clue he’s aged to where he’s not here to visit, but to stay. He’ll be inducted to the Hall of Fame on Sunday. Word is, he’ll go brief and precise with his speech, which should count as one final “Maddux” (what the kids are calling a complete game with fewer than 100 pitches, at which Maddux excelled).
He’s here at the end of 23 seasons, 355 wins (he still thinks there’s merit in those), more than 5,000 innings, four Cy Young Awards and 97.2 percent of the Hall vote, all built and maintained on a million tiny and fleeting decisions and, I don’t know, the 100,000 pitches that resulted from them.
In the cerebral tangle that is an entire career and half-a-lifetime, there are events, such as a World Series championship. There are choices, such as leaving Chicago for Atlanta in 1992, leaving Atlanta for Chicago 11 years later, going West after that. And there are those million tiny and fleeting decisions. In a game of imperfect, a few count more than others.
“Perfect time, perfect hitter, perfect situation,” Maddux called them.
Asked to name one, he shrugged.
“There’s certain pitches you remember,” he said. “In the moment, you’re always looking for the confidence to throw a certain pitch. Certain pitches that stand out, you try to repeat.”
He recalled there were times he’d stand on the mound with a pitching coach or a catcher, ones he trusted, and there’d be a conversation about the decision that came next and the pitch that would follow.
Remember what you threw that guy, on that day, in that moment? Remember how that felt? Throw that again, they’d say.
So on Saturday afternoon Maddux looked into the distance, into the past, and he grinned.
“For me,” he said, “a cutter to Delino DeShields.”
The time and place, maybe that was lost. The sequence, gone. The relevance, eh. The context, he could probably look it up. But a perfect cutter? The perfect cutter? A man remembers how that rolled off his fingertips.
“Changeup to Dave Martinez,” Maddux said. “Fastball away to [Mike] Piazza. Heater in to Dale Murphy …”
His voice trailed off, as if lost in the thought, a man dragging his fingers along the smoothest edge of a career he built.
They called him “The Professor” and they still tell stories about how intelligent he was, and they were all true, except Maddux said, “Good control makes you smart. You throw the ball where you want to throw it, you look smart.”
He’s been here for a couple days. They walked him through the paces of Sunday, over the stage he’ll occupy, looking out to the grounds he’ll command. He’d met Lou Brock. He’d seen Johnny Bench and Tony Perez, towering influences from his childhood, when he was a Cincinnati Reds fan.
“Those were the baseball cards I wanted,” he said, “when I opened my packs.”
He’d played a round of golf with his father, his brother and his son. He’d had a conversation with Tom Seaver he reported to be “pretty cool.” He’d answered a lot of questions, shaken a lot of hands, thanked a lot of people, had a beer or two with the fellas, maybe read through his speech again.
If he were tired, it reflected in his voice. He spoke quietly Saturday of his career. And humbly. He praised Bobby Cox, loving that their conversations anymore are friend to friend, man to man, and not manager to player. He credited Tom Glavine with teaching him to win when it perhaps didn’t seem likely, when winning was even harder than it was most days.
“He kinda taught me you didn’t have to feel good to go out there and win,” he said. “As long as you’re out there with the ball in your hand, you got a chance.”
At the end of it, you’d have thought this guy to be exceptionally talented, unnaturally bright, so gifted, and yet quite common. Reminded of his 2.18 ERA in 1992, he said it was possible the wind was blowing in at Wrigley Field that year. Others will win 300 games, he said. Some of his best memories over more than two decades in the game, he said, weren’t the ballgames but the off-day golf with Glavine and John Smoltz, the card games on the cross-country flights.
I remember the brilliance on the mound. I also remember the commonness.
I came to know him a little near the end. With 327 wins already behind him, his place in this town settled, Maddux was coming to Los Angeles to be a Dodger, which qualified as news. I contacted a reporter in Chicago who’d covered Maddux there and asked what Maddux was about, what was important to him, if there was anything I should know. We talked for about 30 minutes. Near the end of the conversation, he said, “Tell him I said hi. And then he’ll say something uncomplimentary about my mother.”
“It’s our goofy joke. Been going on for years. Doesn’t mean anything.”
So Maddux is in the Dodgers’ clubhouse a couple days later. I introduce myself, we talk for a while and at the end I mention the reporter by name.
“He said to say hello.”
“And then he said you’d insult his mom.”
Now Maddux is glaring at me as if I’d just handed him a subpoena. He narrows his eyes, looks me up and down and says, “What? Why would I say something about his mother?”
“Oh, well, I don’t know, uh, it’s just that he said …”
By now I’m skulking away, sure I’d been set up, my mumbled half-explanation losing itself – I hope – in the clubhouse’s regular racket. Maddux is half-watching me go.
And just as I’m escaping, I hear him say over his shoulder, just loud enough for him and me, “… the lousy tramp.”
I look back and he’s grinning.
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