I tell a story about Greg Maddux a lot. It has nothing to do with his pitching, though his pitching would explain why he was on the field at the time. He was 40 years old and still wearing out lineups with what he did, throwing fastballs in the mid-80s and being unapologetic for that or his ERA, which was about 3 since being traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers a few weeks before.
Dodger Stadium was lively that night late in the 2006 season, as the Dodgers were relevant. Along came Maddux, maybe the best pitcher of his generation, and L.A. does love a star, even an aging one.
Early in a game (I can't recall which), one of the Dodgers (I do recall which, but this isn't about him) was at first base. This baserunner was a position player, still in his prime, and ran quite well when motivated. A single to right field followed and this Dodger jogged to second base and stopped at the bag. Stopped on the bag, actually, and not an inch further. Recognizing the play was over, surrendered actually, the right fielder flipped the ball to the second baseman.
Later, Maddux, who batted a presentable .171 in his career, was at first base. On a single to right, Maddux, who for his many skills did not run well, charged toward second base, hit the bag and took three hard, false steps toward third. Forced into a play, the right fielder charged, gathered the ball and threw to the shortstop to keep Maddux at second.
He was not granted a superior body. He arrived 20 years before at 6-foot, 150 pounds. By the time he made that turn at second base, he may have been 40 or 50 pounds heavier, a bit on the doughy side, two decades of big-league baseball riding on those weary knees and hips.
Yet Maddux played the game.
Gifted with one of the great intellects the sport had ever seen, and by then a 300-game winner, a sure Hall of Famer, a World Series champion, and wealthy by any measure, Maddux busted it around second base knowing third base was unreachable, because that's the game.
I realize this is the equivalent of admiring the Eiffel Tower for its bolts. The swimsuit model for her earrings. Sunrise for its rooster.
Maddux was – is – unusually talented. He was – is – an exceptional athlete. He didn't have the best body, but he used it better. He didn't have the best fastball, but he put it where he wanted more often. He sold the changeup harder, sculpted the curveball more precisely, ran the cutter more deftly, and pushed the game into corners that most suited him.
With a baseball in his hand and nine innings ahead of him, he ran hard through second base every time. He won 355 games. He won four Cy Young Awards, consecutively. He finished in the top five of that vote five other times. He won 18 Gold Gloves. So he goes to the Hall of Fame near unanimously, and it will be said he was among the best at what he did, that he was smarter than most, and more intuitive, and cleverer. And while his intellectual skills will be honored, it is one thing to understand how to win a game a pitch at a time, quite another to execute it. Neither would have worked without the other, however, not to the extent Maddux made it work over most of his 23 seasons.
"I think he bordered on genius when it came to pitching," said Ned Colletti, who was a front-office staffer for the Chicago Cubs when Maddux was there and then, as general manager of the Dodgers, twice traded for Maddux. "I've never known anybody who saw the game the way he saw it and could translate what he saw and then couple it with his talent. He was the smartest person I ever saw on the mound."
Eddie Perez caught 832 1/3 innings from Maddux, by far the most of any catcher, all with the Atlanta Braves. He caught Maddux's final Cy Young season, which capped a four-year era in which Maddux was 75-29 with a 1.98 ERA. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was 7. And early on, when Perez was learning the big-league game, Maddux called nearly every pitch from the mound.
"Now I can talk about it," Perez said Tuesday.
When Perez returned the ball to the mound, he said, Maddux would designate the next pitch by the way he caught the ball, or the way he held his right hand, or touched his cap. And Perez would follow along. It went on like that for months, until Perez decided he knew the opposing hitters – and Maddux – well enough to take over.
"I got it," he told Maddux one afternoon. "Let me call tonight's game."
Maddux nodded and went along with it, shaking off Perez only two or three times. They won the game. Perez was elated.
"How'd I do?" Perez asked proudly.
Maddux looked up at Perez and said, "Those two or three? That's too much."
Russell Martin caught Maddux 17 times, first in 2006, when Martin was a rookie and Maddux was already a 300-game winner. In their early innings together, Martin tried to call the game and keep up and guess along, finding he frequently asked for the wrong pitch while setting up on the wrong side of the plate. Maddux pulled him aside, as Martin recalled, and suggested the games would go smoother if Martin simply set up on the outside corner and called no pitches. Maddux was 6-3 with a 3.30 ERA in 12 starts.
Other pitchers had command. They were smart. They could spin a ball and feather velocity back and forth. They mastered four or five pitches. But none was Maddux.
"He was very good on hitting," Perez said. "He knew what hitters were looking for, waiting for."
Not all, of course. Only Barry Bonds and Craig Biggio faced Maddux more often than Luis Gonzalez, who over 135 plate appearances batted .325 and hit 10 home runs against him. The secret? On May 1, 1991, Gonzalez hit the first two homers of his career in a game at Wrigley Field. Both were off Maddux.
While other hitters thrashed and flailed against Maddux, a strategy that often failed, Gonzalez tried not to think so much.
"Just the confidence," Gonzalez explained. "I felt very confident against him. I honestly didn't try to figure him out. He's that good of a pitcher. You could work yourself into a frenzy."
Gonzalez finished among the few who didn't find themselves there, and stay there for four at-bats or, for that matter, the better part of a career. For the rest, there was little to do but get on with it, to ride the season into another game and know there weren't any others like him.
"He had a feel for it," Colletti said, "I never saw anybody have. Not at a young age. Not at any age."
It ended when it did, five years ago, and today ends where it will, in Cooperstown. From a pinch-running assignment (for Jody Davis) in the 17th inning on Sept. 3, 1986, to pitching the 18th inning to a rookie catcher for the Cubs named Mike Martin, and then four days later a complete-game win in Cincinnati, to here.
Martin, who runs the successful Las Vegas Baseball Academy, caught three innings of Maddux. He roomed with Maddux on the road. Twenty-seven years later, they stay in touch. And so it seems right to end this where Maddux started, and with why he was special.
"I taught Greg a very valuable lesson," Martin said wryly. "That is, how to throw a white ball with red seams over the black part of a white plate."
He laughed at that.
"The ball came out of his hand different," he said. "It was just special. Every time he threw the ball, it did something different.
"That was just Greg Maddux. And it was an honor."
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