Vine Line EXTRA: Greg Maddux retires

One of the best pitchers ever to step on a mound retired today. Greg Maddux called it a career today. His brother Mike might have been the older more scouted player out of high school, but Greg was the one for whom his father said to a bevy scouts watching Mike: “You’ll be back for my little one in a couple of years.”

The thing I remember most about Maddux while he was in his second tour with the team was you never knew exactly whether he was being straight with you or messing with you. During interviews, he had a small smirk, but I couldn’t tell if he was nearly ready to bust out laughing because I was eating up everything he said, or if he simply was enjoying the conversation.

He kept you guessing by the look on his face and his demeanor–completely neutral, no expression of emotion. Perhaps that’s why he was a scratch golfer. Perhaps that’s why he was the one guy Ryan Dempster said DO NOT play cards with or else you’ll lose your shirt (forget the fact he was from Las Vegas). Maddux looks indifferent to everything, and only allowed an occasional outburst on the mound when he gave up a home run. That was it.

Perhaps that’s why he was one of the best. Good luck “Mad Dog.” It was a pleasure watching you pitch.

The following “Leading Off” column was written in 2004, shortly after Greg Maddux made his first attempt at winning his 300th game.

— Michael Huang

It’s all about the team

In early July, hours before an anxious crowd would file into the cavernous confines of Miller Park, all that could be heard were the echoes of horsehide hitting Northern White Ash.

Watching the Brewers take infield practice, Greg Maddux sat in the visitors’ dugout talking to a couple of reporters. Walking by the dugout was Brewers third baseman Wes Helms, with whom Maddux had been teammates in Atlanta. Maddux immediately halted his answer in mid-sentence.

“How are you, Wesley?” Maddux inquired. Helms nodded in respect, then continued on.

“Good kid. I wish they could have made some room for him in Atlanta.”

Sept 2004 cover.jpgAnyone who knows Maddux understands the 38-year-old pitcher’s top baseball priority: the team.

About a month later, on Aug. 1, 2004, Maddux made his first attempt at becoming the 22nd pitcher in baseball history to record career win No. 300. Quiet and unassuming, Maddux has fashioned a Hall of Fame career underscored by understatement because that’s the way he likes it. As win No. 300 loomed, he said: “We’ve got more things to worry about besides No. 300. The post-season means more than my 300th win.”

Perhaps it was only fitting then, with Maddux on the cusp of baseball history, his news took a back seat. A day earlier, Cubs general manager Jim Hendry had engineered a blockbuster trade bringing five-time All-Star shortstop Nomar Garciaparra from Fenway Park to Wrigley Field. Even Garciaparra had to remind the media besieging him that there still was another story.

“I think [Maddux’s 300th] should be the focus of today, more than anything,” Garciaparra demurred. “I felt bad coming in. There’s a bigger issue here.”

And to anyone else, going for win No. 300 would’ve been a big issue.

To Maddux, it was just another game. “I’m just going to do what I do–go out and pitch and try not to get caught up in it.”

After Maddux finished his bullpen session and started walking toward the dugout, several hundred Cubs fans offered Maddux a standing ovation. Though he didn’t immediately acknowledge the swell of enthusiasm, he did so after the game.

“It’s not normal to get that kind of reaction. I appreciate it so much,” Maddux said.

In an era where prima donna pitchers languish for months on the disabled list, I think Maddux has avoided serious arm problems simply because he refuses to pat himself on the back.

And his obsession with the collective rather than the individual is evident in his style of play.

Consider the fact that Maddux is not a strikeout pitcher. I’d say he’s thinking of his teammates by keeping them involved in the game.

Where 300-win power pitchers like Roger Clemens, Nolan Ryan and Tom Seaver often looked like they were just having a catch with their battery mate, Maddux offers his teammates groundball after groundball. In 2004 alone (through Aug. 5), Maddux has recorded 223 groundball outs and 128 flyball outs compared to just 95 strikeouts.

Maddux also seems to have his teammates in mind by being a fast worker on the mound. Really, who wants to be standing around in the hot sun for four hours?

So, Maddux economizes his pitches. According to Stats, Inc., in 2002 and 2003, Maddux threw fewer pitches per inning than any major-league starter. Last year he led the Braves with the fewest pitches thrown to batters, averaging just 3.26 pitches.

Then there was July 7, 1987.

In a heated game with the Padres, Cubs rightfielder Andre Dawson took an Eric Show fastball off the left cheek. A fracas ensued, leading to the ejection of several Cubs and Padres.

Before he took to the mound, Maddux, who had started the game battling to keep his spot in the rotation with a 5-7 record and 4.44 ERA, was advised by Cubs coaches not to retaliate. If he did, it wouldn’t be tolerated and he’d surely be sent back to the minors.

Maddux nodded his head and set off toward the bump.

After he struck out the first two Padres of the inning, the third batter, catcher Benito Santiago, got a low-90s fastball summarily drilled in the middle of his back. Maddux was ejected, but his intent was clear: The team.

A month later, on Aug. 4, Maddux was optioned to Triple-A Iowa. But he didn’t care. Of course, the next season Maddux would go 18-8.

But about that August day in 2004…

Cubs fans buzzed with excitement. One sign said: “No-Mar Mr. Nice Guys–Go Win 300, Greg!”

I heard one Cubs fan mutter, “I betcha we’ll be seeing [Mark] Prior win his 300th at Wrigley someday.”

Another queried, “He [Maddux] looks so little. How could he win so many games?”

After a rocky 25-pitch first inning in which he gave up two homers, Maddux settled down giving up just one more run by the end of the sixth with the Cubs trailing by one. And consider the wind was blowing out to centerfield at 15 mph and the temperature reached 83 unreasonably moist degrees.

When Ryan Dempster–who also was making his Cubs debut–replaced Maddux in the seventh inning, the crowd of 39,032 realized No. 300 was not meant to be this day. Some of them had lined up starting at 4 a.m. for standing-room-only tickets.

“For me, this is one of the biggest thrills of my life,” Dempster said. “I don’t mind at all being the third-coolest thing that’s happened today.”

And the Cubs enjoyed its highest-rated game in August since 1989.

“All you’ve got to do is just keep breathing,” Cubs manager Dusty Baker said. “He’s gonna get 300.” Indeed, he might already have done it as you read this column.

In the end, the Cubs would plate four in the seventh en route to a 6-3 win over the Phillies. Kent Mercker–who pitched to one batter–ended up with the win. Maddux seemed to relish that more than anything. He told Baker to take him out after the sixth, refusing to risk any further Phillies runs off of his tired arm.

“I think I could have started the seventh,” he said. “I would’ve loved to go out there and try not to walk anybody, but it’s not fair to the rest of the guys or the team or the city. It’s not the way you’re supposed to play the game. I knew I was finished after six….I’m just glad we won.”

And again, his priority was clear: The team.

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