I've always been a Greg Maddux guy. I've never been precisely sure what it says about me -- I have these odd quirks in my fandom. You already know about my overwhelming love for Duane Kuiper.*
*A few of you mentioned this ... the new Nebraska football coach, Bo Pellini, said in an interview recently that he grew up a Cleveland Indians fan and that one of his favorite players was Duane Kuiper. Well, obviously I was very excited about this, and so at the recent Big 12 Media Day, I went up to Pellini to ask him about Kuiper. Now, I should say that Big 12 Media Day is the wrong day to try to talk to a football coach about anything -- they are running from one interview to the next, from newspaper reporters to television reporters to radio talk shows back to television reporters back to newspaper reporters, it's one awful mess and I wouldn't wish it on anyone. So, I'm certain Pellini was a bit dazed. He LOOKED a bit dazed.
Still, I have to say that when I asked him about Kuiper, he eyed me very suspiciously, like I was trying to trap him into saying something that might get him in trouble. "Duane was a very good player," he said cautiously, and then he talked about how he wasn't just a Cleveland Indians fan, he also liked the "We Are Family" Pittsburgh Pirates (he grew up in Youngstown, which is sort of a Cleveland-Pittsburgh war zone). I don't know, the conversation just wasn't as fulfilling as I had hoped. I had thought we might reminisce a bit about Kuiper moments. It didn't turn out that way. Maybe I'll make another run at Pellini when it isn't Big 12 Media Day.
But there's more that just Kuiper. As a kid, I was, inexplicably, a huge Ivan Lendl fan. Friends liked McEnroe and Connors and Borg and Gerulitas and Roscoe Tanner*, but I was drawn to the taciturn and stern monotony of Ivan Lendl smacking forheands and backhands from the baseline. I couldn't tell you why I was drawn to him. It isn't like I saw something more in him than anyone else. No, I saw what everyone saw: He was dry, machine-like, strange, boring, and in his early days he would tank sets when he fell behind a break. But for some reason, he was mine, and I ached when he lost those two Wimbledon finals, especially the one to that fluke Pat Cash. So strange. It wasn't until many years later, when I first came across my dear friend and colleague Mechelle, that I met another Lendl fan. She could not explain it either.
*Remember the days when you could actually NAME five or six tennis players off the top of your head?
Obviously, the Maddux fandom is not nearly as strange -- lots of people like Greg Maddux. But I would say that i probably have taken that Maddux fandom beyond the realm of most non-Braves fans. For a few years there in the mid 1990s, I would never (if at all possible) miss a Maddux start. I would count down days. I would start to get psyched the morning of a start, I would plan my day around it, I would tell friends that I had plans when he was pitching. I never thought of this as weird -- it just got to the point where I enjoyed watching Greg Maddux pitch more than I enjoyed going to a movie or hanging out at a bar or seeing some low-level band or most other things. Sure, it probably WAS weird. But it didn't feel that way at the time.
And it was the bewildering logic behind my love of Maddux that compares to Lendl. I never was able to explain WHY I liked watching Maddux pitch. I just did. I figured everyone did, that it was universal. I never even thought about it until one day when I was talking with my buddy Vac, and I said something like: "Isn't is just great to watch Maddux pitch?" And he said something like, "Eh." I remember being stunned. I would soon find that a lot of people felt that way about Maddux -- they respected him, of course, and they admired him, and they appreciated his artistry. But they were not going to cancel plans to watch him pitch. Vac said what they all said -- Maddux was a great pitcher, but he was not particularly dynamic, and he got strike calls four inches off the outside corner, and Vac would rather watch someone else, someone who might strike out 20, someone who might throw a no-hitter, someone like Clemens or Pedro or Unit or Mariano.
That's when I started to wonder: What is it about Maddux that speaks to me? In the end, I think it comes down to the eternal baseball riddle: What would be the ultimate game? We all know what a perfect game is -- what would be the ultimate? Would it be a pitcher striking out all 27 batters on 81 pitches? Or would it be a pitcher getting 27 outs on 27 pitches?
Most, I think, would say that 27 strikeouts is the ultimate game -- and that's probably right. If a pitcher struck out every batter on three pitches -- it's hard to argue against that. Plus, we all know that there's fortune involved when any ball is hit in play, so the whole 27 outs/27 pitches thing would require luck and good defense and all that.
But, I have to say I'm much more drawn to the second possibility. Why? Because it's not really a possibilitiy. It cannot happen. Sooner or later a batter would take a pitch. Hypothetically, a pitcher could strike out 27, a pitcher could come along who is truly unhittable, who throws so far hard or who makes the ball jump or collapse so late that a batter physically cannot hit it. But no pitcher can ever come along who can actually control the batter to the point of making him swing at the first pitch every time, whether he wanted to or not.
Maddux, I think, is the closest we will ever see.
* * *
My favorite Maddux game happened on July 2, 1997. It was a Wednesday -- two days before Independence Day, of course -- and it was widely viewed as a revenge game. It was the first time Maddux faced the New York Yankees after losing Game 6 of the World Series. The Yankees scored three runs in the third inning of that World Series game -- all the runs they would get, all the runs they would need. O'Neill doubled. Girardi tripled, Jeter singled and stole second. Bernie singled. That was enough. The Yankees were world champs.
So the question, at least to me, was: What would Maddux come up with for the Yankees the Yankees this time? I had no guess. The beauty of Maddux has always been that mystery -- nobody had ever quite understood him. With Seaver, you understood, the guy threw gas, and he broke off the nastiest curves, and he was freaking hard to hit. With Clemens, you understood, the guy threw gas, and he would stick it in your ear, and later he honed that split-fingered pitch that went cliff diving just before it reached home plate. With Pedro, you understood, the guy threw gas too only he also had the sick change-up, looked just like the fastball until you swung 12 minutes before the ball arrived, plus he would change arm angles and every now and then he would throw a hard slider because he did not want to strike out batters, he wanted to have them committed to an asylum.
Well, Maddux famously did not throw gas. Commentators never let anyone forget that Maddux's stuff wasn't anything special -- and though they may have missed a few nuances (Maddux's pitches ALL had dramatic movement) the truth was that frustrated hitters said the same thing after games. Guy had nothing. I suspect no pitcher in the history of baseball ever left so many batters feeling like they just missed. Maddux threw his fastball in the upper 80s, sometimes a little faster, often a little slower. He had a change-up that tumbled, a cutter that backed lefties off the plate (and was called for strikes against infuriated righties), a curveball that had nothing to it. It was an unthreatening arsenal, slingshots in a firefight, though that was part of the story. Maddux, as much as any great athlete, wanted to be underestimated.
His success came out of small, often unnoticed things -- for instance, lefties could not hit him. For five years -- 1994-98 -- lefties hit .212 against Maddux, a little bit worse than righties each and every year. That's just a quirky little thing, lefties struggling against a righty (lefties had real problems with Maddux because of his two-seam fastball, which chased low and away), but that was Maddux, a collage of quirky little things. He fielded his position brilliantly, he more or less never walked anyone he did not want to walk, he struck out more people than 3,000 batters but did it with that crazy change-up rather than a back-breaking curve or upstairs heater. There are so many fun little Maddux statistics. He did not throw a single wild pitch in 1997. He gave up four homers in 1994. He did not hit a batter in 2006. He did not balk from 1995 to 1999. In 1996, he recorded 71 assists -- John Smoltz, a different kind of dominant, had about one-third as many.
That was Maddux, always trying something new, always finding an edge, always formulating a plan. He showed you the quarter, made the quarter disappear, pulled the quarter out of your ear only now it was a half dollar, and it was blue, made that disappear, turned it into a Buick, it was all an old-fashioned magic show and come to think of it that might be why I liked Maddux so much. I've always liked magic shows.
So, yeah, I wondered what Maddux would bring to that game against the Yankees on July 2nd, one day after Hong Kong was handed over to China. It didn't take long. First batter: Maddux struck out Derek Jeter on three pitches, and I recall the last being a classic Maddux strike, outside to Jeter, outside corner to the umpire. It was obvious from the start: Maddux was bringing his whole bag to this game. He got Joe Girardi to ground out to second. Then, he went to a full count against Paul O'Neill before getting him to ground out to second. The full count was significant. No Yankees batter would have three balls on him the rest of the game.
Maddux got Tino looking in the second. The Yankees looked dull and a step slow. In the third Hard Hittin' Mark Whiten cracked a single up the middle and got to second on a groundout. Maddux promptly picked him off. That too was significant. No other Yankee runner would reach second base.
Maddux was mesmerizing. That's all. In the fourth, Girardi managed a single against Maddux. O'Neill promptly hit into a double play. In the fifth and sixth, the ball never left the infield. The amazing thing about this game was that the Yankees were going down fast, it's like they couldn't stop themselves, couldn't slow things down, you could almost hear Dick Vitale shouting, "Get a T-O baby!" You will hear announcers talk about a pitcher being in control -- well, I have never seen a pitcher more in control than Maddux that day, not Kerry Wood when he struck out 20 or Nolan Ryan during one of his no-hitters or the many replays I've seen of perfect games. It was different because those pitchers overpowered hitters, tricked them, frustrated them, but Maddux almost seemed to be working WITH the hitters.
"Swing," he said, and they swung.
"Look," he said, and they looked.
Put it this way, Maddux started 20 of the 28 Yankees he faced with first pitch strikes, and still they seemed befuddled. "The best pitch you're going to see is the first one," Girardi said after the game, just like he said before the game, but it did not matter, they did not swing, they could not swing, they seemed stunned as the ball just crossed the plate. Maddux was pitching and hypnotizing all at the same time.
In the seventh, Maddux struck out Jeter swinging, then struck out Girardi looking. In the eighth, it was Cecil Fielder who went down looking. The game technically was not out of reach -- the Braves led only 2-0 on a Ryan Klesko home run and a Chipper Jones single -- but the Yankees were helpless. The ninth inning was the smile on the Mona Lisa. Hard Hittin' Mark Whiten looked at strike three. Chad Curtis muscled a ground ball up the middle for a single, and Bernie Williams pinch hit to give the game a brief burst of tension. Bernie looked at strike three too. That made six strikeouts looking in the game. Jeter then grounded out to second to finish it off.
The final numbers: nine innings, three hits, no walks, eight strikeouts, one pickoff, one double play, 84 pitches. The whole thing took two hours and nine minutes, or 23 minutes less than the new "Dark Knight" movie.
"As a fan, it had to be a boring game," Paul O'Neill said when it ended. Maybe that's how some baseball fans saw it, maybe that's even how MOST baseball fans saw it, I don't know. I just recall being spellbound. Like everyone else, I saw Maddux good on a lot of other days, but I never saw him THAT good, never saw him so entirely in command. He should have worn a tuxedo for that game. He should have had martinis shaken, not stirred between innings.
That's not to say that I think Maddux is the greatest living pitcher -- I look at our poll, and I realize that this is an impossible question. I think Pedro was awfully good. I think Clemens was awfully good. I think Koufax was preposterously dominant, and Gibson too. I think Tom Seaver should be getting more respect, and Bob Feller should be getting more love. It's a tough poll.
No, Maddux is just my favorite pitcher. If I had to explain it, I guess I would say that it comes down to this: Even now, all these years later, nobody quite knows how he did it. The magician always guarded his secret. After that Yankees game, he was asked why he was able to dominate. He said: "I was locating well." That's a perfect Maddux quote -- probably sums up the wizardry Greg Maddux in four words. It's true. And it doesn't give away a damn thing.