From the Pages of Vine Line: Maddux at the head of the class
By Carrie Muskat, The following can be found in the March issue of Vine Line.
I covered Greg Maddux in 1987, his first full season with the Cubs. I remember his great 15-3 first half in ’88, his 19-win season in ’89 (capped by a victory in Montreal to clinch the division) and his first Cy Young season in ’92. I was there for his strange return to Wrigley Field in a Braves uniform and for his Chicago reunion in 2004.
Last December, it was with great pleasure that I could finally check Maddux’s name on my Hall of Fame ballot. He’s the smartest pitcher I’ve ever seen.
On Jan. 8, the National Baseball Hall of Fame announced Maddux was headed to Cooperstown, after receiving 555 votes out of a possible 571 (97.2 percent) in his first year of eligibility. Players need 75 percent of the vote from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America to be elected. Mark your calendars: The ceremony will be held on July 27 in upstate New York, and Cubs fans have no excuse for not showing up.
Maddux won a Cy Young Award with the Cubs and three more with the Braves, where he also claimed a World Series title in ’95. He pitched 10 seasons in two stints with Chicago and 11 seasons in Atlanta. Though he had his best years with a tomahawk on his chest, he has chosen to go into the Hall of Fame with no logo on his plaque in a tip of the cap to his original organization.
“My wife, Kathy, and I grew up in baseball in Chicago, and then we had just an amazing experience in Atlanta with the Braves,” Maddux said in a statement. “It’s impossible for me to choose one of those teams for my Hall of Fame plaque, as the fans of both clubs in each of those cities were so wonderful.
“I can’t think of having my Hall of Fame induction without the support of both of those fan bases, so, for that reason, the cap on my Hall of Fame plaque will not feature a logo.”
I told you he was smart.
A little trivia: Maddux made his first appearance on Sept. 3, 1986, not as a pitcher but as a pinch-runner in the 17th inning of a game that had been suspended the previous evening after 15 innings because of darkness. Remember, Wrigley Field didn’t have lights until 1988. Nolan Ryan started for the Astros that day against the Cubs’ Jamie Moyer.
Maddux stayed in to pitch the 18th, but he served up a one-out home run to Houston’s Billy Hatcher to take the loss. In what would become classic Maddux fashion, he shrugged it off. Four days later, on Sept. 7, Maddux picked up his first win, an 11-3, complete-game gem against the Reds at Riverfront Stadium—the first of 109 complete games he would toss in his 23-year career.
Maddux didn’t intimidate hitters with velocity, but he dominated the NL with tremendous movement on his pitches and his vast understanding of the game. Still, it took a winter in Venezuela with pitching coach Dick Pole to convince the young right-hander not to throw as hard as he could. So what made Maddux change his approach?
“The hitters make it click with you,” Maddux said. “When you start throwing it, and they start whacking it, that’s what makes it click.”
Pole had some influence on Maddux’s decision as well. After the pitcher’s brief big league call-up in ’86, Cubs General Manager Dallas Green wanted Maddux, Pole and catcher Damon Berryhill to spend part of the winter in Venezuela to fine-tune some things. Apparently, it worked.
“I kind of understood the importance of, being at the big league level, that I needed to be able to throw my fastball to both sides of the plate, not just for a strike,” Maddux told author Alan Solomon, who wrote A Century of Wrigley Field. “I think that was the reason for the big turnaround. That and my first year, I was able to understand the importance of locating my fastball and, even more so, pitch slow. I didn’t pitch slow very good at all my first year. Then, after that, once I retaught myself how to throw my change-up with the help of Dick, things got better for me.”
Better might be an understatement. From 1988-2004, Maddux won at least 15 games in 17 consecutive seasons en route to 355 career victories.
“I knew he was going to be good when I saw him when he was young, but I didn’t know how good he was going to be,” Pole said. “If you want to find the definition of pitcher, it’s going to be Greg Maddux. It’s not stuff with him. It’s location, pitch selection, changing speeds.”
STUDENT AND TEACHER
Maddux stressed that lesson to young pitchers as well. After his playing days ended in 2008, he returned to the Cubs as a special assistant to General Manager Jim Hendry in 2010. In this position, he visited the minor league teams, often sitting on the bench with players.
On one of those days, Cubs pitcher Chris Rusin found himself next to Maddux in the dugout and asked how the future Hall of Famer got the same two-seam movement on both sides of the plate. Rusin applied Maddux’s advice in a start last July against the Giants, in which he threw seven shutout innings without any of his pitches topping 90 mph.
“[Maddux] relied on movement, and he obviously has way more movement than I do,” Rusin said. “But he could locate everything on both sides of the plate.”
It was The Professor’s cerebral approach to the game and the way he emphasized team first that earned him the respect of everyone around him.
“To me, the most amazing thing about Greg Maddux is that he’s the best student of pitching I’ve ever met,” said former teammate and current Yankees manager Joe Girardi in 2004. “He never missed a hitter on the bench. He paid more attention than other pitchers, and I think that’s what has made him so great.”
Maddux honed his baseball acumen by spending time with position players and hitting coaches to better understand how they approach pitchers. There are countless stories about how he would call pitches from the dugout during a game or warn a teammate about a foul ball that would soon be heading his way.
In 2004, MLB.com’s Adam McCalvy and I combined to write a story about Maddux and his older brother, Mike, who was the Brewers’ pitching coach at the time.
“I would say it’s the same book, different covers,” Mike said of his relationship with his brother. “You might think he’s more serious than me, but get to know both of us, and we’re a lot alike. Maybe I’m more extroverted than he is.”
Said Greg of his big brother: “He’s a little bit further out there than I am. We have a lot in common—hobbies, beliefs, sense of humor, stuff like that.”
The pitching pair grew up in Madrid, Spain, where their father was stationed at a U.S. Air Force base. All the TV shows were in Spanish, so the boys would go outside and play baseball instead—and both were incredibly competitive. When the Maddux brothers played golf, they didn’t wager money on each round. Instead, the winner would give the loser a wedgie.
Another reason Maddux’s teammates respected him? He was excellent, efficient and almost always in control on the mound. On July 17, 2004, back with the Cubs for a second turn, Maddux threw a six-hit, complete-game shutout to beat the Brewers, 5-0, and 17 of the 27 outs came on ground balls.
“I’ve battled against him before, and it’s just not fair,” Milwaukee’s Dave Burba said after the game. “He has movement on everything that is unreal. Shoot, if I had stuff like that, I wouldn’t know what to do with it. I’d probably have to retire.”
“Or go to the Hall of Fame,” the Brewers’ Matt Kinney chimed in.
It was a classic Maddux performance. His take on the game? That also was vintage.
“As far as days to pitch on, this was as easy as it gets,” he said. “It was cool, the wind was blowing in, and the mistakes were hit at people.”
Reporters usually got better comments about Maddux from the opposition than from the unassuming pitcher himself. He didn’t like being the center of attention, especially as he approached his 300th win in 2004.
“For me, personally, I’d rather win 15 games and have a chance at the postseason,” he said. “That means more to me than winning 300. … It’s hard to say it’s just another game, but it is. We’ve got more important things to worry about than one guy reaching a goal. It’s not about me. It’s about us.”
Flashback to July 7, 1987, when San Diego’s Eric Show hit Andre Dawson in the face with a pitch in the third inning. Dawson had homered off Show in the first.
Maddux started that day, and Rick Sutcliffe warned the young pitcher not to retaliate. The Cubs were thinking about sending Maddux back to the minors for some seasoning, and he desperately needed the win. Instead, Maddux struck out the first two batters he faced in the fourth, then plunked the Padres’ Benito Santiago with a pitch and was ejected.
“He hit him as hard as a man can,” Sutcliffe said, retelling the story. “That tells you what that kid was made of. When he came back up [from the minors], Dawson and [Ryne] Sandberg made sure they never took a day off when he pitched.”
THE LIGHTER SIDE
Maddux was also known in the clubhouse for his pranks. Cubs fans saw his playful side when the first night game at Wrigley Field, on Aug. 8, 1988, was postponed because of rain. Al Nipper, Les Lancaster, Jody Davis and Maddux made the most of the delay and delighted rain-soaked fans by sliding on the tarp.
“I don’t know who instigated it, but I’m glad I did it,” Maddux said in his interview for the Wrigley book. “It was fun, and 20 years later, people are still talking about it.
“You know, being the first night game and everything, it started raining, and we were just kind of hanging out in the dugout, kind of enjoying the thunderstorm and the rain and all that,” Maddux said.
“You sit there long enough, I guess you start talking about some stupid things to do—and we came up with that, and we ended up doing it.”
In the offseason, even after Maddux and Pole were no longer together with the club, the pitcher would check in on his former coach or call with some obscure, off-the-wall question. Pole remembered the time when Todd Walker got his 1,000th hit, and someone threw the ball into the dugout for safekeeping.
“Why doesn’t anyone save balls from low points in their careers?” Maddux deadpanned to Pole.
The next day, Pole found a ball in his locker that was signed by Maddux, commemorating the 300th home run the pitcher had given up. Maddux also signed a ball to commemorate his 200th loss. Pole still has both of those souvenirs.
In my office, I have a black Wilson glove with Maddux’s name and “No. 300” stitched in gold. Maddux had the gloves made for teammates, coaches, friends and family after he won his 300th game on Aug. 7, 2004, in San Francisco. The Wilson rep knew I’d followed Maddux since his beginning with the Cubs, and made sure I got one too.
Before the Hall of Fame announcement in January, I checked in with Pole. He’d already sent Maddux a text to congratulate his former pupil. Maddux’s response was, “Thanks, Coach Pole, for all the tips.”
My favorite Maddux moments weren’t actually his games. When he rejoined the Cubs in 2004, he and his son, Chase, who was 10, would be in the Wrigley Field bullpen early in the morning. The ballpark was quiet, except for the grounds crew mowing the grass, and father and son would become teacher and pupil.
The day after the Hall vote was revealed, Maddux took part in a news conference in New York with Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas, who will be joining No. 31 in Cooperstown. Later, Maddux tweeted: “Pretty cool last 48 hrs!! Glad I shared it with Glav and the Big Hurt. The baseball world is awesome.”
Thanks, Greg Maddux. So are you.