The maestro

Jeff Passan

CHICAGO – The master was watching The Masters.

Greg Maddux had shoehorned himself into a chair, knees tucked into chest, neck craned at the plasma screen high on the wall of the Chicago Cubs' clubhouse. Not the ideal ergonomic pose for a man who turns 40 a week from today, though Maddux has made a living of doing things the tough way.

"If you ask me," he said, "this is the best of both worlds. The Masters. A win. Good day."

While visions of grandeur abounded outside Wrigley Field after the Cubs' 5-1 victory against St. Louis in their home opener – "This is the team!" cried one man drunk on the Cubbies and Old Style – Maddux, pitching deity he is, rested. He won his 319th game Friday with a combination of guile and savvy and all of the other adjectives that make Maddux sound more like an elite sniper than a for-the-ages pitcher.

Come to think of it, it's Maddux's ability to hit any spot that separates him from his predecessors, contemporaries and successors, what keeps him around despite a fastball that regularly sits at 85 mph, what might make him, and not Roger Clemens or Pedro Martinez or Randy Johnson, this generation's greatest pitcher.

Because he hasn't been the Greg Maddux of old over the last five years, some of the gleam has worn off of the seven-season stretch during which he was as good as any pitcher in history. In the heart of the Steroid Era, from 1992-98, Maddux went 127-53 with a 2.15 ERA. He struck out almost five batters for every one he walked, won four consecutive Cy Young Awards and took home seven of his 15 Gold Gloves.

Every so often, Maddux reverts to that form, and the blustery conditions Friday didn't hurt. Game-time temperature was 40 degrees. Winds gusted at 25 mph. Every time bat struck ball, it stung the hitter's hands. The boring action of Maddux's pitches doubled the throbbing.

"It seemed like it was forever out there," Maddux said.

In reality, he threw 88 pitches over his 6 1/3 innings, an efficient and quick outing. Maddux gave up four hits, one run on a Jim Edmonds home run, walked two and struck out one. If there's a method to Maddux's madness, it's that he is methodical.

From his deliberate steps to the mound – 35, from dugout steps to rubber, give or take a couple – to his perfect motion, Maddux uses simplicity to generate all the standard plaudits.

"His ball was heavy," Cardinals catcher Gary Bennett said.

"If you sit there and try to guess, he's probably always one step ahead of you," Cardinals shortstop David Eckstein said.

"He pitched masterfully," Cubs manager Dusty Baker said.

To warm his right hand, Maddux blew on it before almost every pitch. In his 21st big-league season, Maddux trusts in that hand and arm like they're his conscience.

Down three balls and no strikes to Bennett, he threw an 84-mph fastball, followed with a 78-mph changeup and caught him looking with an 85-mph fastball on the outside corner. Were this any other pitcher than Maddux, the repertoire of pitches would have looked downright Triple-A. Because it was Maddux, it looked more like Monet.

"He's been at the head of the game for a long, long time," Bennett said. "At one point, he was above it. He locates, he moves the ball, and if you're able to do that as a pitcher, it's tough on a hitter. And he's been able to do that as long as I can remember."

Maddux walked off the mound. He didn't strut or pump his fist. He just walked, and he looked much bigger than the 6-foot, 180-pound sapling who slipped to the second round of the draft because scouts were afraid of his size.

How could they have known Maddux would turn into the sage of the pitching business? No one could have, and it's for that reason he's arguably this generation's best pitcher: While Clemens was full of gas, Martinez replete with bombast and Johnson a physical freak, Maddux defined consistency. That's what kept him around, and it's also what could keep the Cubs afloat while Mark Prior and Kerry Wood get healthy.

"I'd like to get a ring here in Chicago," Maddux said. "That's it, really. That's why I'm playing. Everyone has their reasons to play. I enjoy the game. I enjoy the competition. I enjoy the city so much. I'd love to do what I can to help this team to win."

All Greg Maddux needs to do is be himself. That's more than good enough. On Friday, it was masterful.