Dave Maddux answers the door to his Las Vegas home wearing a
striped shirt from Augusta National Golf Club, a Christmas gift
from his younger son, Greg, who has played a round or two there.
When the visitor casually mentions that he was out playing golf
with Greg the previous day, Dave chuckles like someone who has
just been told the opening line of a familiar joke. Yes, Dave
has heard this one before. "Let me guess," he says. "Did he skip
one across the water? Knock one off a tree and onto the green?"
This is an article from the Oct. 31, 1995 issue
Well, not exactly, but....
"See, we call him Nate Luck," Dave says. "I was in the Air
Force, and we were living in Spain. Greg was in the third grade.
One day the teacher gave out a sample paper of how to do
homework. At the top of the paper it said, My name is ... and it
had the sample name Nat Yates. Well, Greg put Nat Yates on all
of his papers.
"Ever since then we've called him Nate. The whole family picked
up on it. If we're at a stadium, we'll just holler, 'Nate!' and
he knows it's one of the family and turns around. We've made it
into Nate Luck because he gets all the luck. Or that's the way
it seems. He's always been that way. We've always been a big
card-playing family. We played crazy eights, games like that,
when the kids were growing up. He always seemed to win.
"Now we'll go out to dinner, and afterward Greg will say, 'Let
me go to the blackjack table.' If the bill's $150, Greg will bet
$150. And he'll get blackjack. It's just amazing."
From about 230 yards out, Greg Maddux chunks a five-wood second
shot on the par-5 3rd hole at the Tournament Players Club in Las
Vegas. The ball hardly gets off the ground before nose-diving
into one of those godforsaken desert gulches that, in old
Westerns, are usually littered with cattle skulls. The ball
thwacks against a rock and ricochets forward, still on line.
Then it smacks the top of a second rock. Finally it bounces out
of the Georgia O'Keeffe landscape and onto a fluffy patch of
grass just below the green. At that moment you swear you hear
harp music on the warm desert wind.
"I have never," Maddux says, "seen a ball bounce twice out of
the desert like that. And look at this: a great lie." He flips
the ball onto the green and bangs home a short putt for birdie.
Nate Luck lives in the city where Luck is the patron saint,
though that is just another phantasm in a garish excess of neon,
silicone, peroxide, toupees, and man-made volcanoes that erupt
in stereo. When he stands on the rocks of his backyard waterfall
after sundown, Maddux can see the nuclear glow of Vegas's core,
the Strip, where the house wins more often than luck.
But Maddux--card player, golfer, Jeopardy! savant and the
greatest pitcher at work today--keeps beating the house. Even
though he is now 29, the Atlanta Brave righthander cuts no more
imposing a figure than he did on the day in 1986 when he came up
to the big leagues with the Chicago Cubs and his manager mistook
him for a batboy. Maddux has such small hands and fingers that
he can't break off anything better than a below-average
curveball. Radar guns get a giggle out of his 85-mph fastball.
Behold, though, the jackpot hanging on the wall of the
second-floor hallway in Maddux's relatively modest home: three
Cy Young Awards won, unprecedentedly, in three consecutive
years, including 1994, when Maddux had one of the most efficient
seasons in baseball history. While National League pitchers had
a combined earned run average of 4.21--the worst in 41 years and
the fifth highest since 1912, when the league started keeping
this statistic--Maddux finished the strike-shortened season at
1.56. The 2.65 gap between his ERA and the league's was the
Amazingly, even after the extralong off-season caused by the
strike, Maddux continued his mastery of National League hitters
in 1995, going 19-2 with a 1.63 ERA in the regular season. He
became a lock to win his fourth straight Cy Young, which will be
awarded on Nov. 13, and then went 3-1 in the postseason to help
lead the Braves to the world championship.
Tom Seaver had Steve Carlton, and Jim Palmer had Catfish Hunter,
but Maddux has no peers. No pitcher has been this much better
than his contemporaries since Los Angeles Dodger great Sandy
Koufax, whose reign concluded with his retirement in 1966, the
year Maddux was born.
"He's as good as it gets," says Dick Pole, the San Francisco
Giants' pitching coach, who tutored Maddux for six years in the
Cub organization. "We've seen pitchers go on rolls, like Orel
Hershiser [59 consecutive shutout innings for the Dodgers] in
the second half of '88. But Greg's been automatic for years, and
he's liable to stay in it for another five years. He's almost
mechanical in the way he goes about his job."
"Sometimes," says Philadelphia Phillie leftfielder Gregg
Jefferies, "I swear he must be laughing out there when he has
his back to the plate. That's how much control he has over
And yet Maddux can walk down any street in the U.S. and barely
turn a head, unless someone mistakes Maddux for his or her
accountant. With his round spectacles (for off-field use only)
and a pinch of tobacco stuffed under his upper lip, Maddux looks
more like Jerry Lewis as the Nutty Professor than the greatest
active pitcher. "I'll be out with him," says teammate John
Smoltz, an accomplished postseason pitcher (5-1, 2.76 ERA) with
only a 90-82 regular-season record, "and people will say, 'Hey,
there's John Smoltz,' and nothing else. I've seen it happen in
Atlanta. He can walk right through a crowd."
Says Maddux, "I prefer it that way." His life is beautifully
simple. He has his high school sweetheart, Kathy, for his wife;
a 22-month-old daughter, Amanda Paige; two dogs; golf; movie
rentals; season tickets to minor league hockey; and two more
years left on a five-year contract worth $28 million, tons more
money than he knows what to do with. "The only thing I waste
money on is golf," he says. This is the life that Nate Luck
"Luck?" he says. "Dude, I'm a firm believer in making your own
breaks. If 100 guys go out and all buy lottery tickets and one
guy wins, that's luck."
He has a teenager's taste for video games, junk food and slang.
(He calls even his dad Dude, as in "Later, Dude," at the end of
a phone conversation.) Last Christmas, Kathy figured Greg could
stand to replace his Mickey Mouse golf bag. So she gave him a
deluxe leather Looney Tunes model that includes a Daffy Duck
head cover. He loves it.
The only man to win three Cy Young Awards in a row has to play
catch out on Rancho Mirage Street in front of his house because
his backyard is too small. Occasionally he traipses across a
neighbor's lawn and reaches into the shrubbery to fetch an
errant toss from Jamie Crow, one of his golfing buddies. You
imagine the homeowner harrumphing, "It's that Maddux boy again.
That rascal's going to bust a window one of these days."
If you needed only one reason to hate the eight-month baseball
strike, you couldn't find one more powerful than being deprived
of the pleasure of watching Maddux work his craft so
magnificently on the mound. Every fifth day that the strike cut
out of the end of the 1994 season and the beginning of the '95
campaign, another start was lost from the prime of a master's
One afternoon in late February, a time when he should have been
at the Braves' spring training camp in West Palm Beach, Fla.,
Maddux was instead in his kitchen, searching for the last Diet
Coke in the fridge. It was long gone, so he raided the baby's
apple-juice supply. "Sure, I wish we were playing," he said.
"But, Dude, you saw what I did today. Come on. Get up and do my
arm exercises, go out and play golf, play with my kid, crank up
the barbecue, maybe watch a movie. I'll play golf five or six
times a week in the mornings, and Kath will do her thing in the
"So do I miss baseball? I miss spring training. That's fun. I
miss hanging with the guys. I don't miss being all stressed out,
watching hours of tape, breaking down hitters, making one
mistake and hearing 50,000 people groan, 'Ohhhhh.'"
He had a golf game the next morning and the morning after that.
"Pitching and golf are a lot alike," he said. "In golf, if you
do everything mechanically correct, you're going to hit a good
shot. Same way with pitching. You may choose to throw the wrong
pitch. But if your choice is right and your execution is
mechanically correct, you're going to be successful. Yeah, golf
and pitching are so alike, it's scary."
Maddux is in his cart speeding down the 16th fairway of the TPC
course after crushing a monster drive. He is even for the round.
"Dude, I'd love to finish under, but there's no way I can," he
says. Why's that? "Seventeen. I never play that hole well. Never."
On the 536-yard par-5 16th he slams his second shot pin high,
though he misses the huge green and leaves himself a long
chip-and-run shot. He hits his next shot with the touch of a
lumberjack. The ball is screaming across the green, headed for
Reno, perhaps, when suddenly it smacks his partner's ball.
Maddux's ball stops four feet from the hole. Maddux drops the
putt to go one under.
Smoltz can't stand to sit next to Maddux on the bench during
games Maddux pitches. "He'll have a one-two-three inning, maybe
strike out two or three guys, and then you've got to listen to
him in the dugout, talking like he's got no chance out there,"
Smoltz says. "I thought I was hard on myself. I'm nothing like
him. I mean, he'll come in after an inning like that and say,
'Dude, I got lucky. Did you see that guy rake that ball foul?'
So forget it. Now I've caught on to his act. No, wait. It's not
really an act. His routine."
At barely six feet and 185 pounds, Maddux is not blessed with
great physical tools or, by his own admission, "an overpowering
fastball or a freezing-type breaking ball." What he has is an
uncanny ability to deliver pitches to precise locations at
various speeds. If you asked him to take out an exit sign 60'6"
away, he would probably ask if he should hit the E, X, I or T.
"It's like golf," he says. "The more you learn, the better you
play, the more you enjoy it. This is the way I look at it: If
you can put the ball where you want two out of three times,
there's a very low-percentage chance you'll get hurt. Take 100
pitches in a game. Say 66 pitches I can put exactly where I
want. That leaves 34. About half of those, say 17, will be so
bad--bounced curveballs, things like that--that the guy's not
going to swing. Now I'm down to 17 pitches out of that 100 that
I have to get away with."
By age six, when he was supposed to be playing tee-ball, Greg
was mowing down seven- and eight-year-olds. He threw to his
father in the backyard every afternoon at 3:30, just after Dave
arrived home from the base in Madrid. Dave showed Greg how to
step toward the target, but the rest of Greg's mechanics seemed
to have come to him as naturally as breathing. It wasn't long
before Dave was placing his glove on imaginary inside and
outside corners up and down the strike zone, and Greg was
popping it regularly.
In 1976, when Greg was 10, the family moved to Las Vegas, where
Dave would finish out his military career three years later.
Greg's brother, Mike, who is five years older, immediately
caught the attention of Ralph Medar, a retired major league
scout who offered informal instruction for free to some of the
city's best young players. Greg followed Mike to Medar's Sunday
"After about three or four weeks," Dave says, "I said to Mr.
Medar, 'Put Greg out there. Let him play.' Everybody said he was
too small. The first time Greg threw, Mr. Medar said, 'I don't
know where the boy got those mechanics, but let me tell you
this: Don't you let anybody change those mechanics. He's going
to be something.' Unfortunately, Mr. Medar died before Greg
graduated from high school. Had he lived, I think he would be
saying, 'See, I told you so.'"
When Greg was 13 and the other kids were overthrowing their
fastballs and jeopardizing their elbows by trying to spin
curveballs like the big leaguers on TV, Greg learned from Medar
how to throw a changeup. "I don't want you throwing curveballs,"
Medar told Greg. "The changeup is not going to be a good pitch
against high school hitters--you could just throw your fastball
and get most of them out--but down the line a good changeup is
harder to hit than any other pitch." Today, after some
refinements, such as moving his thumb from underneath the ball
to the side, the changeup is Maddux's best pitch. "The changeup
is like putting," he says. "You're always tinkering with your
putting. 'Let me open up a little more. Change my grip. Try
this, try that.' The changeup is like that. You continually make
adjustments. It's a feel pitch."
Maddux was only 5'11" and 150 pounds when he graduated from high
school in 1984. Scott Boras, an agent who wanted to represent
him but would not gain him as a client until 1990, advised him
to go to college. Every team in baseball passed on Maddux in the
first round. But the Cubs drafted him in the second round and
offered him an $85,000 signing bonus. Maddux took it and
promised himself that he wouldn't touch the money until he
reached the big leagues--which he did two years later.
By 1988, at the age of 22, Maddux was an 18-game winner. After
that season his dad was paired in a golfing foursome in Las
Vegas with a major league scout. When the scout found out he was
playing with Greg Maddux's father, he offered a confession.
"I've got to tell you something," he said to Dave. "I scouted
Greg and said that he was too small and wasn't going to make it."
"I was his manager when he first came up to the Cubs," says Gene
Michael, who recently stepped down as the New York Yankees'
general manager. "I'll never forget this. I was standing in
front of the dugout with one of my coaches, John Vukovich. And
Vukovich says to me, 'Aren't you going to say hello to your new
pitcher?' I said, 'Where is he?' Vukovich points into the dugout
and says, 'Right there.' I say, 'I don't see anybody.' And he
says, 'Right in front of you, in the dugout.' And I say, 'That's
the batboy.' And he says, 'That's your new pitcher.'
"If anybody tells you they projected Greg as a Cy Young winner,
that wouldn't be true. Not close. He was a good athlete with a
just-barely-above-average fastball. And now ... the guy is a
Baseball people with stopwatches and radar guns increasingly
prefer tall pitchers, who have more leverage off the mound and
large hands with which to throw nasty breaking balls and
split-fingered fastballs. Of the 92 pitchers who have won at
least 200 games in their careers, 36 have been righthanders who
stood no taller than six feet. But only eight of those 36
pitched in the past half century--and none since Luis Tiant put
away his spikes and walked off in a puff of cigar smoke 13 years
Maddux has the best chance to end this short shrift. His career
record is 150-93, and he has 71 more wins than the next active
six-foot-or-under righthander, Mark Portugal. "It seems like one
of the requirements for pitching now is size," Maddux says.
"Really, what you need to do to be a successful pitcher are only
two things: Locate your fastball and change speeds."
A better measure of Maddux would be his competitiveness, which
borders on the compulsive. It was stoked as a child by constant
competition with older kids and by Greg's desire to keep up with
Mike, a reliever who has pitched for five major league clubs and
who ended the '95 season with the Red Sox. Boras first learned
about Greg's competitive fire in 1990 when he spent three days
with Greg at a hotel while studying a contract offer from the
Cubs. "I lost 26 consecutive games of Nintendo to him and
watched him clean up on Jeopardy!," Boras says. "He's almost
animalistic in his competitive nature. Hearts, Nintendo,
golf--his day has to have something competitive so he can test
This means not even Kathy is safe from being challenged in what
should be the comfort of their seats at Las Vegas Thunder hockey
games. "You know how they play music during the game?" she says.
"We try to see who can guess the artist first. He keeps score. I
let him win, because he can't stand to lose. He cheats."
"Do not," Greg says.
"Do too," Kathy says. "I'll go to the bathroom, and when I get
back you'll say, 'I got one.' Or you'll get one and say the
score is 7-5 when it's just tied. It's true."
Maddux is at his diabolical, gleeful best when it comes to the
throw-by-throw gamesmanship between pitcher and hitter. No one
is better at breaking down the nuances and vulnerabilities of
batters. "I watch tapes of hitters all the time," Maddux says.
He is so obsessed with decoding hitters--right down to how he
might change his approach to a batter with two strikes in a
late-inning pressure situation--that "when I go into a game with
a certain plan and I execute it and it works, I feel like I've
won even if I didn't win the game," he says. "Pitching is the
art of messing up a hitter's timing, of outguessing the hitter."
From an elevated tee, Maddux confronts his nemesis: the dread
17th hole, a 186-yard par-3 with only a foot or two of fringe on
the left side between the green and the water. The right side is
guarded by large, deep bunkers with which Maddux has become
familiar. This time he boldly strikes a five-iron toward the
left side of the green, and the ball lands pin high, about 12
feet away. He raps home another putt to go two under.
Maddux's pitching delivery is a marvel of compactness and
efficiency, especially from the moment he pulls the ball out of
his glove. Most pitchers, seeking maximum velocity, extend their
throwing arms straight back, giving rise to the cliche "reaching
back for something extra." Maddux, as if throwing inside a phone
booth, smoothly bends his arm behind him into an inverted L,
always keeping his hand on top of the ball. When he raises his
arm into throwing position, he concentrates on forming another
L, this time right side up.
"I could probably throw harder if I wanted," he says, "but why?
When they're in a jam, a lot of pitchers, especially young
pitchers, try to throw harder. Me, I try to locate better. Maybe
I'll move the ball three inches more off the outside corner."
The foundation of his success is his ability to run his fastball
and changeup away from righthanded hitters. At the same time, he
is known to throw inside more than any other pitcher. He is
particularly effective inside against lefthanders. Maddux is one
of the few righthanded pitchers who can start a fastball at a
lefthander's hands and bring it back over the inside corner for
a called strike. In recent years he has added a cut fastball
that has slightly less velocity but more movement, boring in on
a lefthander with bat-breaking bite. "He's like a surgeon in
there," says six-time National League batting champ Tony Gwynn
of the San Diego Padres, who has a .431 average against Maddux.
"Most guys are afraid to pitch inside because if you make a
mistake there, you're going to get hurt. But he puts the ball
where he wants to. And that cutter can be a nightmare. You see a
pitch inside, and you wonder, Is it the fastball or the cutter?
That's where he's got you."
It's his mastery of his pitches that allows Maddux to be so
cunning. To say he has five pitches (fastball, cut fastball,
slider, curve and change) is to say New England has four
seasons. The variety of speed and location on those five pitches
"Maddux is the one pitcher with whom, if you can get out with a
1-for-4 game, you think you've done something," Jefferies says.
"He's so tough because he doesn't pitch to a pattern. I've been
2 and 0 against him and seen changeups, cutters and a fastball
down the middle. So all you can do against him is react."
Maddux has gotten the best of even Gwynn in recent years. "Early
in my career he threw me fastballs running away; he was pitching
to my strength," says Gwynn. "I got fat early against him. The
last couple of years, he's turned it around completely by
throwing me more changeups and cutters. The difference in him
the last three years is that all his pitches have great movement.
"Last year we opened against the Braves, and the day before we
faced Maddux, we had a hitters' meeting. So I say, 'He's not
going to waste a single pitch. If it's 0 and 2, he's going to
try to put you away. You've got to protect both sides of the
plate. You can't sit dead-red [wait for a fastball] on any
count. With runners in scoring position, he's going to turn it
up a notch.' After hearing that, some of the younger guys were
shocked to see Maddux. Tim Hyers said, 'I thought he would be a
god who came down from the mountain with Zeus. He's just a
little guy who knows how to pitch.'"
Maddux's economy of motion and pitches explains why, despite his
size, he has led the league in innings pitched for five
consecutive years. He is so durable because he does not tax his
small frame. "Every pitch has a purpose," Smoltz says.
"Sometimes he knows what he's going to throw two pitches ahead.
I swear, he makes it look like guys are swinging foam bats
The 433-yard finishing hole at the TPC course is a slight dogleg
left with water down the left side. On the tee box, Maddux
closes his stance and whacks a high, long draw that perfectly
traces the bend of the hole. He hits his six-iron about 15 feet
from the hole and two-putts for his par. He finishes at 70, two
under, tying his personal record.
The photographer wants to snap some pictures of Maddux standing
in front of his Cy Young Awards. "No way, Dude," Maddux says.
"I've seen pictures like that. They always look so arrogant."
The photographer tries to convince him it can be done in a
classy manner; he even poses an assistant for a Polaroid to show
Maddux. The pitcher grimaces when he sees it.
"Look at that," he says. "It's like, 'Look at me. I'm so great.'
No way, Dude. If you want to take a picture of the wall, go
ahead. But not with me in it." Maddux knows the significance of
the awards. It's just not something he wants to think about.
"It's scary," he admits. "It's like golf, when you're playing
well and you get that little nervousness just thinking about
keeping it going."
Instead he thinks often about a message he unfurled from a
fortune cookie years ago: "Underestimating your opponent can
lead to catastrophe." There are times during a game in which
Maddux is cruising so easily that he throws a pitch or two
without purpose. Wait a minute, he'll think, and then he'll back
off the mound and remember what the fortune said.
And that 1.56 ERA? "Dude, that's a fluke," he says. Hardly. In
the 504 innings he has pitched since July 1993, Maddux has gone
43-10 with a 1.57 ERA.
Maybe what is most phenomenal about him is that he has remained
unspoiled. "That kind of talent," says Atlanta general manager
John Schuerholz, "usually comes with an ego sidecar. He doesn't
have it. He's as easygoing as the guy next door."
As a free agent in 1992, Maddux took $6 million less to sign
with the Braves than he was offered by the Yankees. He didn't
like the idea of throwing away his knowledge of an entire
league's roster of hitters. And he didn't want to play the role
of star pitcher, as he would have had to in New York. The Braves
already had a Cy Young winner (Tom Glavine) and two National
League Championship Series MVPs (Smoltz and Steve Avery) on
"Plus," Maddux says, "I knew the Braves treated their players
right." That meant he would no longer have to duck into the
clubhouse laundry room to scarf down cheeseburgers and fries, as
he did with the Cubs, who banned junk food. "With the Braves,
it's like the candy aisle of 7-Eleven," Maddux says. "Candy, ice
cream, chips.... It's great."
More important, Maddux knew the Braves let their pitchers play
unlimited golf. On his first day of spring training with
Atlanta, he teed it up with Avery, Glavine and Smoltz. During
the season Maddux plays once or twice a week with one or more of
his rotation mates. He admits to a seven handicap. "I'd say
that's a beefed-up handicap," Smoltz says. "He's not going to
get himself involved in anything he can't win. He knows his
limitations. It's just like his pitching. He makes you feel like
he doesn't have a game, just to set you up."
"Golf," Maddux says, "is not something I work hard at. Golf is
fun. That's the only reason I play. When I make decisions on the
mound, I have a lot more information than on the golf course."
Late in February the Vegas heat was beginning to rise, and it
felt strange to Maddux. He hadn't been home for the dawning of
spring since he was in high school. On nights when he should
have been making baseballs obediently dance and dip, he could
usually be found in front of the TV with Kathy, watching a
Other times, when he ventured to the Strip, he would stroll the
marble-and-cobblestone floor of The Forum Shops at Caesars and
marvel at the expense of it all: the Roman statues, the
simulated Italian piazza, the hand-painted ceiling made to look
like a blue sky in which the clouds actually move. Nate Luck,
the most genuine article in there, blended anonymously with the
herds of tourists and gaped at how even the ashtrays looked
positively opulent. It all was, of course, like golf.
Said Maddux, "It's the Augusta of shopping malls."