The master learned to pitch with a voice in his ear. It was the
voice of a man who would be dead inside of two years. That would
be enough time--this brief intersection of skinny kid and wise
old muse--to engender what may be the most sophisticated
evolution of the art of pitching ever witnessed. ¬∂ "First pitch,
fastball in," the voice said. ¬∂ Greg Maddux was 15 years old when
he heard it. The batter was Marty Barrett, a 23-year-old minor
leaguer headed for a 10-year career in the bigs. The voice
belonged to Ralph Medar, a former scout who assembled pickup
baseball games every Sunday at nine in the morning in Maddux's
hometown of Las Vegas. The good ballplayers somehow always knew
about the games, the same way basketball players know when and on
which court to find the best neighborhood run. See you at
Medar's, they'd say.
Medar would stand behind the pitchers and give instruction.
Maddux listened to the voice. The kid threw a fastball in.
Barrett pounced upon it, sending a double screaming to leftfield.
The next inning Barrett stepped in again. (The games almost never
drew enough players for nine to a side.)
"First pitch, breaking ball," came the voice.
August 8, 2004
The kid broke a decent curve over the plate. The pro took it for
"O.K. Now, fastball in."
Maddux threw. This time the barrel of Barrett's bat was not so
quick. He connected, only not as solidly. The same pitch, but
this time cleverly set up by slow stuff, produced a lazy fly ball
Oh, O.K., the kid said to himself. Now I get it.
Van Gogh had the south of France, Hemingway the battlefields and
bullrings of Europe. Maddux had Medar's. The genius of the 22nd,
and perhaps last, 300-game winner in the major leagues was
inspired by the old man's voice.
"Kid," the sage said, "you throw hard enough to get drafted. But
movement is more important than velocity."
"I believed it," says Maddux, now 38 years old and in his 19th
big league season. "I don't know why. I just did."
How do you explain it? The kid heard it, and he believed it, the
way a seminarian hears with clarity the call of God in a noisy,
profane world. He was born to this calling. The other kids,
muscles growing and hormones firing, wanted to throw baseballs
through brick walls, and the other coaches kept imploring, "Throw
strikes!" But the old man would say, "Bounce a curveball in the
dirt here," and the kid would understand the intended subterfuge.
It didn't hurt, either, that when the kid threw a baseball with
his right index and middle fingers each atop the seams, the ball
darted and sank with preternatural movement.
"God gave it to him, I guess," says Chicago Cubs bench coach Dick
Pole, who worked with Maddux as far back as 1987, when the Cubs
righthander was in his first stint with the team. "It's always
moved like that."
Maddux is sitting in the visitors' dugout at Miller Park in
Milwaukee the day after career victory 299, a 7-1 win over the
Brewers in which he'd given up four hits and one run in six
innings and improved his record this season to 10-7. Four days
later, in his first attempt at getting his 300th win, Maddux
would leave after six innings with the Cubs trailing the
Philadelphia Phillies 3-2 in a game that Chicago would go on to
win 6-3. His next try was expected to come against the Giants in
San Francisco on Saturday.
Only three 300-game winners have ever had better control, as
measured by walks per nine innings, than Maddux (1.90): Cy Young
(1.49), Christy Mathewson (1.59) and Grover Cleveland Alexander
(1.65). All of them were done by 1930. Only two pitchers, Lefty
Grove and Walter Johnson, ever won this many games with a
relative ERA (that is, ERA measured against his contemporaries')
better than Maddux's 28.2% differential. Grove's ERA was 33.2%
better than his peers', and Johnson's was 30.8% better. Both of
those pitchers were finished by 1941. Maddux is, to most of us,
unlike anyone else we've ever seen.
Once Maddux nails down number 300, only he and Roger Clemens will
have survived maple bats, billiard-hard baseballs, steroid-juiced
lineups, a construction boom of hitter-friendly ballparks and a
laser-guided tightening of the strike zone--in short, the
greatest extended run of slugging the game has known--to reach
that milestone. Clemens did so with the sledgehammer of a mid-to
upper-90s fastball. Maddux has needed stealth and intellect. A
beautiful mind, only with a killer changeup.
So expertly has Maddux mastered the subtleties of pitching that
he has become an iconic presence. What Ripken is to durability
and Ruth is to power, Maddux is to finesse, forever the measuring
stick for the few who might follow in his path.
"It's amazing," Pole says of the Maddux-Medar relationship, "to
think what came about when two people collided. Right time, right
Maddux still hears the voice of the old man when he pitches, only
the voice long ago became so familiar that it now sounds the same
as his own. These are the commandments of pitching that he hears:
1) Make the balls look like strikes and the strikes look like
2) Movement and location trump velocity every time.
3) When you're in trouble, think softer. Don't throw harder;
4) Have fun.
His physical gifts fading, Maddux must work harder than ever to
keep those commandments. All except the last one, anyway.
Maddux's older brother Mike, now the pitching coach for the
Brewers, pitched with modest success for 15 seasons, the last in
2000. "I remember my brother telling me in his last year or two,
'You don't know how good I have to pitch just to get out of an
inning,'" Greg says. "I'm thinking, What's he talking about? I'm
starting to understand more and more what he meant by that."
At his very best Maddux won four consecutive Cy Young Awards
(1992 to '95) and had the lowest ERA (2.14) in a six-year span
(1992 to '97) since World War II, lower than the sublime six-year
prime of Sandy Koufax (2.19) in a pitcher's era. Such was
Maddux's sleight of hand with a baseball that future Hall of Fame
third baseman Wade Boggs called him "the David Copperfield of
pitchers" after he shut out the New York Yankees over eight
innings in Game 2 of the 1996 World Series.
Maddux, however, never did get enough credit for just how nasty
his stuff was. He threw his fastball 90 or 91 mph with the sudden
movement of a jackrabbit flushed from the brush. The ball
naturally sank and ran away from lefthanders. A slight twist of
the wrist, and it cut toward their hands.
"I pulled out tapes from 10 years ago, back when I was throwing
up those really good years," Maddux says. "I made more mistakes
then than I do now! It's just that I got away with them. My
movement was better because my velocity was better."
Maddux typically throws at about 85 mph now. "I may not have the
same success as I did earlier when I was doing it at faster
speeds, but I can still have success," he says. "My bad games may
be worse, though. I think I have to pitch better now than 10
years ago. I have to locate better because my stuff is not as
good. It's still good enough to win, but not good enough to make
mistakes. I don't throw hard enough for the ball to break as much
as it used to."
Brewers outfielder Geoff Jenkins says of Maddux, "He still keeps
the ball down in the zone. I try to be aggressive against him and
attack early in the count because the deeper you get in the count
against him the more he seems to mess with you and outthink you.
It just seems like he hits his spots and all of a sudden it's the
end of the night and you have a comfortable 0-fer."
The more Maddux's physical skills decline, the deeper he must
plumb his mental well to stay sharp. At that he is unrivaled. He
is, for instance, a voracious observer. He often can tell what a
hitter is thinking by where he stands in the batter's box, how he
takes practice swings, how he fouls off a pitch or takes a pitch.
"It's like kids at school--some pay more attention than others,"
Pole says. "He's on a different level from everybody else when it
comes to attention."
Says New York Mets lefthander Tom Glavine, Maddux's rotation mate
with the Atlanta Braves for 10 years, "That's the biggest part of
what sets him apart from everybody else. It helped me. I never
really paid attention to any of that stuff until Greg came to
Atlanta [in 1993]. It opened up a whole new world I had never
seen before. He was way ahead of everybody else in that regard."
Once while seated in the Braves' dugout as third baseman Jose
Hernandez batted for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Maddux blurted out,
"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.
Another time Atlanta manager Bobby Cox visited Maddux on the
mound with runners on second and third and two outs. Cox
suggested an intentional walk.
"Don't worry," said Maddux, who then spelled out to Cox the
sequence of his next three pitches: "And on the last pitch I'm
going to get him to pop up foul to third base." Maddux proceeded
to escape the jam on his third pitch--getting a pop-up to third
base that was a foot or two from being foul.
Cubs ace Mark Prior, a 23-year-old power pitcher, says he likes
to sit next to Maddux in the dugout on days when neither is
pitching. "He's helped me tremendously," Prior says. "I've always
gone harder whenever I've been in trouble. He's got me thinking,
Go softer when I'm in trouble. I never thought that way before,
and it's helped me develop confidence in my changeup. As we watch
games, he'll talk about what I might throw in certain
Maddux prefers to downplay his reputation as a mound savant. He
has told teammates, "People think I'm smart? You know what makes
you smart? Locate that fastball down and away. That's what makes
"I don't surprise anybody with what I throw anymore," Maddux
says. "You just have to mix your pitches up. And 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. Yeah, the hitters are stronger, the balls are harder,
some parks are smaller and the strike zone's smaller. Still, for
me, it's all about movement and location. If you have those,
you're going to have success."
Episodes of Maddux's clairvoyance, however, continue to abound.
Last week before his start in Milwaukee, he shouted to Pole in
the clubhouse, "Hey, what's Brady Clark hitting with runners in
"How the hell do I know?" Pole replied.
"Well, find out for me, will you?" Maddux said.
Pole tracked down and passed along the information: The
outfielder was hitting .226 with runners in scoring position.
That night Maddux pitched around slugging first baseman Lyle
Overbay with a runner on second and Clark on deck, then whiffed
Clark on a changeup. "He knew which hitter he wanted to face if
that very situation came up," Cubs lefthander Kent Mercker said
afterward. "He doesn't miss anything."
Maddux lives for such moments, like a chess grandmaster who has
specific killer moves cataloged in his head and finds utter joy
when the board suddenly presents the perfect opening to employ
one. Three hundred wins? It is just a number to him right now.
That is not why he pitches. He pitches for the intellectual and
physical challenges, the small moments that go unseen by most.
Asked to explain the best part of pitching, Maddux says, "I enjoy
watching the other guys, talking on Monday [about a game plan]
and trying to do it on Tuesday. Guys who just show up on Tuesday
and pitch, I don't understand that.
"The best part? The best part is knowing on Monday you're going
to do something and then actually doing it on Tuesday. You know
what? It might be just a strike. It might be a foul ball,
[telling yourself,] 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 where that may
happen. The other 80 or 90 pitches you're trusting what you see
and what you feel. It's still just fun playing the game."
It's still so much fun that he cannot yet imagine it ending. "Who
knows?" he says, when asked how long he will 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 at all."
there's one thing I've learned about Greg Maddux," Cubs manager
Dusty Baker says. "He shags better than anybody I've ever seen. I
don't see him out there running foul poles, but I see him out
there getting his running in shagging."
It's not uncommon for a pitcher, especially a veteran, to loathe
workouts, but two or three times on his off days between starts
Maddux chases fly balls during batting practice like an eager
teenager hauled out of the stands. "I like to stay in shape,
baseball shape, by playing baseball," Maddux says. "And it's fun.
It's a lot more fun running around the outfield pretending you're
Andruw Jones than running on a treadmill watching Jerry Springer
reruns. To me, even the four days in between starts are fun."
Maddux makes certain that every throw he makes, even when
shagging flies, is delivered from the same arm angle as one of
his pitches, and never off-balance. He lifts light weights for
his arm and shoulders from December through April, then, he says
simply, "I trust my arm." At week's end he had thrown 4,110 1/3
innings in his career and had never been placed on the disabled
list with an arm injury of any sort.
There are model Rockets all around baseball, tall power pitchers
in the mold of Clemens with here-it-comes fastballs. The next
Maddux, however, may be a long time coming. "Now," says Maddux,
who stands six feet tall and weighs 185 pounds, "if you don't
throw 95, you're a wimp. If you're not 6'4" with a 90-plus
fastball, you'll never get drafted."
Says Glavine, "It's such a game of power pitching and power
hitting now. Every pitcher throws flat-out gas with maximum
effort. I don't know if we'll ever see anyone like Greg."
Here is the next Maddux. He is throwing a baseball against a
dugout fence at Miller Park. Chase Maddux, Greg's son, is seven
years old. He throws a pitch submarine-style.
"Like the guy from Oakland," he says, referring to reliever Chad
"Stay on top, kid. Stay on top," Greg says.
The father raises his right arm in a classic L shape, his elbow
slightly above the height of his shoulder. "Look," he says. "Like
That voice is a familiar one. Medar, who died in 1983 at age 69,
never lived to see one of Maddux's 300 wins, never lived even to
see him selected by the Cubs in the second round of the 1984
Chase winds up and, with a still head and properly raised elbow,
lets fly a perfect strike.
"That's better," the sage says. "That's much better." ¬±
Complete baseball coverage, including Tom Verducci's weekly
mailbag and Inside Baseball column, at si.com/baseball.
Savor Greg Maddux's 300th victory--it may be a long time before
you see another pitcher reach that milestone
Former Braves president Stan Kasten promised Greg Maddux months
ago that he would attend the game in which Maddux tried for his
300th career win. Kasten made the vow not only out of gratitude
toward Maddux--who pitched for the Braves for 11 seasons--but
also as a fan of baseball history. "It might be the last time we
ever see 300," Kasten says.
The 300-game winner is on the endangered list, though Tom
Glavine, Maddux's former rotation mate in Atlanta, has other
ideas. The New York Mets lefthander is the next-closest active
pitcher to 300, with 258 victories at week's end. Glavine, 38,
has two years left on his contract with New York. Assuming four
more wins this season (he had eight through the Mets' first 104
games), Glavine would need to average 19 wins over the next two
years, or 13 over the next three, to get to 300.
"I have a shot," Glavine says. "Most people think I can pitch for
four or five more years because of my style of pitching. That's
probably right. Whether I mentally and emotionally want to pitch
that long is something I'll have to decide."
If not Glavine, the next 300-game winner may not yet even be in
the major leagues. The Arizona Diamondbacks' Randy Johnson (240
wins at week's end) ranks fourth among active pitchers, behind
the Houston Astros' Roger Clemens (322), Maddux and Glavine. But
Johnson, who turns 41 in September, is a long shot because he
could average 15 wins a year at ages 41, 42 and 43 and still fall
The New York Yankees' Mike Mussina, 35, has 208 wins, one more
than Clemens did at the same age. Mussina, however, has been
sidelined with an elbow injury and has said he does not envision
himself still pitching in his 40s. The Boston Red Sox' Pedro
Martinez, 32, has the most wins (176) of any pitcher younger than
35, but he would have to average 15 wins a year while pitching
until he's 41, an unlikely scenario given his injury history.
Conventional wisdom holds that winning 300 games is more
difficult in this era because of the explosion of offense, the
fixture of five-man rotations and the evolution of the
specialized bullpen, which has led to the earlier removal of
starters. But those theories may be inadequate. For instance,
National League starting pitchers accounted for 69.8% of their
teams' wins in 2003--down only slightly from 71.3% in 1993. And
while the now-extinct four-man rotation did mean an extra six
starts per season for a pitcher, the two greatest droughts of
300-win milestones occurred during spans in which the four-man
rotation was used entirely (1925 to '40) or preponderantly (1964
to '81). The five-man rotation has been commonly used since the
mid-1970s without severely curtailing the flow of 300-game
winners. Tom Seaver, for instance, won 311 games without ever
making more than 36 starts, the typical annual limit in today's
Three-hundred-game winners are typically about halfway to the
milestone by the season in which they turn 29, as Clemens (152)
and Maddux (150) were. No other active pitcher fits that
description. For instance, even if the Oakland A's' Mark Mulder,
26, wins 20 this year, he would still need to average 22
victories over the next three seasons to be on that track.
Projecting even farther out, C.C. Sabathia of the Cleveland
Indians has a fast start toward 300 with 50 wins at age 24. He
was three months younger than Maddux was when Maddux won his
50th. Sabathia is the youngest pitcher to win 50 since Steve
Avery in 1993, a reminder of how far 50 is from 300. Bedeviled by
injuries, Avery fell 204 wins short. --T.V.
When the kid threw a baseball, it darted and sank with
preternatural movement. "God gave it to him, I guess," Pole
"Who knows?" Maddux says, when asked how long he will go on. "As
long as I can do it. I'd rather pitch bad than not pitch at
"It's such a game of power pitching and power hitting now,"
Glavine says. "I don't know if we'll ever see anyone like Greg."