Saturday, December 06, 2008

Appreciating the genius of Maddux

Posted: Saturday December 6, 2008 1:45AM; Updated: Saturday December 6, 2008 1:45AM

Baseball is much less interesting today. Greg Maddux, after all these years playing with house money and playing with hitters, took his ball and went home.

The magic show is over. I dislike absolutes, but of this I am sure: Greg Maddux is the most fascinating interview, the smartest baseball player and the most highly formed baseball player I have encountered in 27 years covering major league baseball. There is no one alive who ever practiced the craft of pitching better than Maddux.

Like a grand master in chess, Maddux saw the game on a higher plane than everybody else. Some of his tricks he shared with me, such as knowing how to attack a hitter after watching the hitter take his warmup swings. There was the time he was in the dugout decoding the body language of Jose Hernandez of the Dodgers during an at-bat when he deadpanned to a teammate, "Watch this. The first base coach may be going to the hospital." On the next pitch Hernandez drilled a line drive off the chest of the first-base coach. Well, Maddux was wrong about the hospital part, anyway.

Some of his tricks, of course, he did not share. I learned only this year, for instance, about one trick he used on the mound that just blew me away, a real giveaway to his genius that no one else could possibly think of. I hope someday he lets me share it with you.

Every time I talked with Maddux I learned something, and not always about pitching. He understood hitting as well as any position player I ever met.

Think about the genius of that. If you want to catch a crook, you must think like one rather than a law-abiding citizen.

He is baseball's beautiful mind, and yet Maddux kept his gift covered with a thick blanket of humility. Never in sports will you find this kind of greatness accompanied by such an utter lack of ego and entitlement. In 2004, when I asked him how much longer he might pitch, he told me, "I'm not worried about it. I'm already on extra credit." I replied, "Greg, you've been telling me that for years." He replied, "I've been meaning it for years, too."

I will miss watching him pitch. In his prime, Maddux never received enough credit for the quality of his stuff. Too many people equate power with stuff, but Maddux's fastball, at least back when he was throwing 90 mph, had ridiculous movement -- late, large movement. Think about this: he dominated hitters with no splitter and a curveball that was no better than high-school quality.

That's how good were his fastball and changeup. It wasn't just location.

1994 MLB Baseball All-Star Game in Pittsburgh

Moreover, he practically invented a pitch: that two-seam fastball that he aimed at a left-handed hitter's hips, only to have it jerk back over the inside corner just as the batter jackknifes out of the way. It is a standard pitch today only because Maddux popularized it.

More so, I'll miss our conversations, which sometimes picked up months or even a year apart as if only minutes passed between. Here is just a sampling of what I learned from him.

The key to pitching: "Make the strikes look like balls and the balls look like strikes."

• How to get out of a jam: "When you're in trouble, think softer. Take advantage of the hitter's eagerness. Don't throw harder. Locate better."

• Why he throws more warmup and bullpen pitches out of the stretch than the windup: "Think about it: when is it most important to execute a pitch? With runners on base."

• On radar guns: "I'd rather have movement and location than velocity any time."

• On getting to the majors: "In the minor leagues, it was always about getting better. I was never too worried about results."

• On out-thinking hitters: "You have to alter patterns. I don't surprise anybody with what I throw. You just have to mix your pitches up. Even if the hitter is guessing right, if you locate it you won't get hurt. You might give up a single or a double, but it's not the end of the world."

• On how long he wanted to pitch: "As long as I can do it. I don't want to embarrass myself by any means. But I'd rather pitch bad than not pitch."

• On winning with finesse: "It's more stressful, but it's a welcome kind of stress. If you didn't have that every fifth day, baseball wouldn't be fun. If it wasn't hard to win a game it wouldn't be fun."

Maddux pitched all those years and never hurt his arm. That's how perfect were his mechanics and how great was his athleticism that allowed him to repeat those mechanics. He honestly enjoyed every last thing about baseball.

Pitching? Sure, he loved the challenge of a fresh count and a fresh hitter, the way an artist welcomes the empty canvas. But even the mundane elements of the game gave him a charge. In his 40s, for instance, he shagged batting practice balls in the outfield with the zeal of a 12-year-old kid pulled out of the stands. (The only difference, though, was that Maddux never threw a baseball, not even after chashing them during BP, without getting his elbow above his shoulder and forming a perfect L with his throwing arm.)

Chicago Cubs Greg Maddux in dugout in game vs Chicago White Sox.
Chicago, IL 19-May-2006

What, I once asked him, was the best part about baseball?

"Everything," is what he said first. "Winning is an absolute blast.

Getting a hit is an absolute blast. Standing up there and getting a hit off somebody is one of the funnest things you can ever do."

He kept going.

"Watching a game every day. I don't mind watching a game every day. Talking baseball ..."

His "best part" list kept getting longer.

"It's what I know. It's what I do. I enjoy watching other guys ...

Talking on Monday and trying to do it on Tuesday ..."

Now he was at bedrock: the core of the master's joy.

"Some guys just show up on Tuesday. The best part is knowing you're going to do something on Monday and actually doing it on Tuesday. And executing it. You know what? It might be a strike. It might be a foul ball. You might think, If I throw this guy this pitch, he's going to hit it foul right over there, and then to go out there and do it, that's pretty cool. To me. That's fun.

"You're only talking about 10 pitches a game. The other 80 or 90 you're trusting what you see and what you feel. It's still fun playing the game. And strike three is still one of the funnest pitches in baseball."

Maddux was the genuine article, a ballplayer evolved to the highest form. It is fitting that he is the winningest pitcher alive, an honor he should keep up to his very last breath. This appreciation, not by accident, made no mention of any career statistic of Maddux, no more than you would cite records sold to describe the voice of Sinatra. Maddux is synonymous with the art of pitching. He was that good. Never again will we see, or hear, anyone quite like him.

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