Greg Maddux, the best pitcher since Sandy Koufax, is warming up in the Atlanta Braves’ bullpen. Danny Bowden, 11, and Matt Korpi, 10, think they’ve gone to someplace better than heaven. They haven’t died. But they do have front-row seats just ten feet behind the Braves’ bullpen catcher. From behind a screen the boys can watch Maddux from a perch almost as good as the view an umpire gets.
The two children, decked out in baseball regalia from team caps to logo-laden shirts, are quiet as Maddux throws dozens of pitches.
“Looks like Greg Maddux, right?” says Matt finally, perplexed.
“Yeah,” says Danny, pointing to the number 31 on the pitcher’s back.
“I thought it was,” says Matt.
“He’s not even warming up yet,” says Danny.
Maddux’ motion is so compact and controlled it’s hard to tell if he is making an effort. All his gestures—stretch, stride, leg kick—are so abbreviated they seem to be a preparation to make some real baseball motion. He’s finished his delivery while you’re still waiting for him to get up a head of steam. His pitches smack the catcher’s glove with a small crack. Some arrive silently.
Maddux’ pitches don’t move much, either. A few feet in front of home plate, just as Danny and Matt are about to lose sight of the ball in front of the catcher, Maddux’ pitches make quick but undramatic swerves. Some go down, some break in or out, others move a bit down and in or a tad down and away. It’s hard to call these throws—which deviate only three to six inches off plumb—pitches at all. Playing catch, you can make a ball move as much.
Every Maddux pitch seems to travel about the same speed—but not exactly so. Each throw covers the last few feet a bit faster or a bit slower than the previous one. Occasionally, Maddux throws curveballs. They roll sharply. Good college quality. But to say they break would be generous.
On an adjacent mound, Steve Avery starts to throw. The sound is like cherry bombs blowing up soda cans. Danny and Matt arch their necks to see Avery. But those seats are taken. They are stuck with watching the 30-year-old who’s won the past four National League Cy Young Awards.
“If Greg was throwing as fast as he could,” says Danny, “we’d be ducking.”
Later, Maddux is told about the two boys. He puts a pinch of snuff under his upper lip and adjusts his wire-rimmed glasses. He’s not six feet tall, as the roster says, though he might live up to the 170 pounds. His eyebrows and forehead sometimes twitch involuntarily, like those of a tense nerd in school. His smile is shy, his voice so soft it’s a strain to hear. “I hate to disappoint those kids, but I was throwing as hard as I can.
“That’s all I’ve got.”
If you want a series of interviews with a star athlete and you don’t already have a personal history with him, this is what usually happens: You have to perform the goddamn 12 labors of Hercules.
You talk to his agent, his lawyer, his general manager, his team’s public relations director. Your people talk to his people. You block out time. You do a courtship dance. The process can take weeks. Perhaps he blows you off. Finally, you go to a steakhouse or play golf or visit him in his home. But, underneath it all, here’s the basic ground rule and the subtext: He’s a star.
This is how it works with Greg Maddux. You walk up to him in the clubhouse and introduce yourself. He says, “Playboy, huh? Do I get to pose?”
Greg Maddux has no public persona whatsoever. He may be the most widely known athlete in American history who can walk down any street and go unrecognized.
You start chatting. John Smoltz walks past with a bagful of McDonald’s cheeseburgers. Maddux mooches one. “Need grease,” he says to appalled pitching coach Leo Mazzone, who hates antihealth food. “Gotta make that sinker drop.”
Sitting hunched at his locker, Maddux munches his impromptu fast food meal. He signs balls. He opens fan mail. And he talks—for an hour and a half, about any subject under the sun. He’s shy, his voice quiet. It’s obvious he loves to talk pitching theory. It’s his passion. But he doesn’t mind talking about himself either, though he finds the subject inherently less interesting. Finally, he says, “Gotta go do my running. Come back any time.”
Greg Maddux has nothing to sell and little to hide. He has no image to cultivate or protect because he hasn’t bothered to create one. He has no major commercial endorsements. He has no public persona whatsoever. He may be the most widely known athlete in American history who can walk down any street and go unrecognized. “Around the ballpark, they know who you are,” he says, “but you go a couple of miles up the road, dude, they got no clue.”
Once, when asked why he doesn’t do commercials or promote himself, Maddux explained why a wife (Kathy), a two-year-old daughter (Amanda), two dogs, one set of golf clubs with Mickey Mouse head covers and a lot of movie rentals constitute his idea of a perfectly organized life. “I like my time off. I like golf. I like to be with my family. I just like to get up and do nothing.”
To say that Maddux’ candor is disarming would be an understatement. For example, his teammates insist the one aspect of his character that’s unknown is his humor. “He’s very funny,” says Atlanta manager Bobby Cox. “But it’s hard to think of anything in particular.” Teammates can’t produce illustrations either. “They’re just covering for me,” says Maddux, not bothering to cover himself. “They won’t give examples because you can’t print any of it. With my sense of humor, the more disgusting something is, the funnier it is to me.
“My brother probably started it,” he adds, meaning 34-year-old Mike, now a Red Sox pitcher. “You know how you look up to your big brother. If you see him doing something vulgar and enjoying it, you learn to enjoy it and appreciate it, too. We had a lot of fun seeing how vulgar we could be in front of our sister.”
He has a secret, through he may not know it or lay claim to it. Without trying, he’s a guru.
There’s something truly special about Maddux. No, not his mooning. Everybody in baseball senses his uniqueness. The realization that he’s radically different starts as soon as you see him. His shoulders slope. He has no muscles to speak of. When he jogs, his stomach sticks out in front of him. An average-size man who can’t run fast or jump high and who does not possess a single knee-buckling pitch should not have the best back-to-back earned run averages for the past two seasons since Walter Johnson in 1918 and 1919.
“I can’t believe a regular-size guy with the stuff he has can do what he’s done,” says teammate David Justice. “It shouldn’t be possible.” Or as another teammate says, “I just saw Greg in the training room. He’s working out with his four-ounce weights.”
Even beyond his poise on the mound and his spooky control, there’s more to Maddux. His very core—his temperament, his approach to everything—mystifies and attracts those around him. He has a secret, through he may not know it or lay claim to it. Without trying, he’s a guru. In something as simple as wind sprints, the whole team takes its cue from Maddux. With two dozen players spread across the outfield, Maddux lines up out by the warning track. Gradually, you realize his teammates cut their eyes toward Maddux to see when he’ll being his next 50-yard run. When he breaks, they all follow a millisecond later. Maddux doesn’t look at anybody.
“It’s not his job to lead the sprints. But it wouldn’t surprise me if they pick up his rhythm. They watch everything he does,” says Braves general manager John Schuerholz. “Wouldn’t you?”
The baseball subculture delightedly testifies to this “something” about Maddux and loves to speculate about it. “They say you have to have a big ego to be a great athlete. He must be the exception that proves the rule. He sure doesn’t need much from a manager,” says Cox. “He just loves to watch the game, learn the game and then play the game.”
“These days, athletes have the reputation of being rich, spoiled babies,” says the Braves’ Tom Glavine, who’s the only pitcher in the past five seasons with more wins (91) than Maddux (90). “Greg is so far on the other end of the spectrum. If you found the most arrogant ballplayer there is, then his opposite would be Greg.
“He’s the best pitcher of our era. But if people could see how he acts around us, they’d be mind-boggled. He never gives the impression he thinks he’s anywhere near as good as he is. That’s what’s so refreshing about him,” says Glavine.
Baseball’s most addictive charm is the illusion that, if you study the game and its people closely enough and long enough, you can almost live a split second in the future.
Last season, two of the Braves’ front-office personnel were leaving the park. “Where you headed?” asked Maddux. “Burger King,” they said. “Come with you?” asked Maddux. “He’s got a $28 million contract, but it felt perfectly natural for him to come to Burger King with us,” said the Braves employee.
“Off the field, he’s like a kid in a man’s body,” says Rafael Palmeiro, a former Cubs teammate.
Maddux’ pitching is simply the manifestation of something rare and probably enviable within him. Let’s not push this too hard. It’s a mean old world with lots buried deep. But he might be happy.
He actually says, without provisos, “I’m very happy with myself.” He’s not bragging. He simply applies the Golden Rule to himself. He treats himself as he would treat others. Since he’s unfailingly generous to others, he’s also kind to himself. He allows himself to be happy. Who would suspect that modernity’s chimera—the unified sensibility—might be found inside a baseball pitcher?
If you try to make Maddux complex, you won’t do justice to his simplicity. He’s a sort of accidental wise man. When you listen to him talk, you’d swear he is doing a slacker’s paraphrase of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Michel de Montaigne or Warren Buffett. Think of all those sensible passages you’ve underlined and thought, If only I could live like that. But, of course, I can’t. I’m too screwed up. Maddux hasn’t read the books. He might not understand them if he did. But, in some sense, he lives them.
Maddux has the guileless gifts of moderation and common sense that sometimes lead an innocent through the world’s maze as if he were blessed. You want to grab him and say, “You’ve got something the world craves. And you don’t even know you have it. That’s really annoying.” But you can’t stay miffed at Greg Maddux. You just hope some of it rubs off.
Maddux likes to watch. He’s the ultimate baseball fan. Nothing is more riveting to him than a three-hour ball game on a hot summer night. Baseball’s most addictive charm is the illusion that, if you study the game and its people closely enough and long enough, you can almost live a split second in the future. Love of detail gives birth to a sixth sense.
Part of Maddux lore holds that, a couple of years ago, he warned teammates that a foul ball would be hit into the dugout on the next pitch. Four times that season he made his offhand prediction. Three times, the foul ball arrived. Anybody can, occasionally, call a home run one pitch in advance. What Maddux did is like calling the row and seat number in the bleachers.
A knack for observation runs in the Maddux family. After retiring from the military, Maddux’ father became a part-time poker dealer at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Life in the casinos is all about one thing: Keeping your eyes open. If you don’t, your wallet will be gone or you’ll be dealt to off the bottom. If you don’t, you won’t know what cards are out or who blinks when he bluffs.
“I’ll go and watch him deal or join the game and give him a hard time,” says Greg. “I’ll say, ‘He’s not a good dad. He never deals me a winning hand.’” Then, Maddux watches to see how people take his remark. What’s the spin? What’s the count? What’s the tendency? What does every gesture mean?
Since childhood, Greg has been accused of having an obscene amount of luck. His family nickname: Nate Luck. Yet maybe it’s not all mere good fortune. By the third grade, Greg was the Maddux who won at Concentration, the memory card game. As an adult, he’s a successful system blackjack player in the casinos and a dangerously observant poker player. His agent, despite his advanced degree, is hopeless against Maddux at Jeopardy! “Shallow men believe in luck,” said Emerson.
Maddux won’t talk about current players. But ask him about anybody who’s retired. Then you’ll see the level of observation that makes him great.
“If you could get Dale Murphy to miss one fastball,” says Maddux, “then you could throw him change-ups.”
Translated from the baseballese, this means Murphy was vain about his ability to hit the fastball. If he couldn’t time the fastball, his confidence was under attack. If you snuck a fastball by him, he’d obsess on that one pitch until he proved to himself that he was back in sync.
“The only danger with Murphy was that one fastball. If you could get away with it—maybe up and in for a foul ball—then you could even throw a mistake change-up.”
A mistake change-up is a mush ball that floats right down the center of the plate. Your grandmother could cream it. But if Maddux set up Murphy correctly, then he honestly felt he could throw the worst pitch on earth with impunity, with total confidence, and know that a man with 399 career home runs, two MVP awards and a shot at the Hall of Fame would strike out.
“Mike Schmidt was the same way, but with the slider,” says Maddux. “If you could make him swing and miss at the slider just off the outside corner, then he would give up on the fastball away.”
So, here’s the ideal Maddux sequence to Schmidt: Start with a fastball on the low outside corner for strike one. Schmidt would probably take it because few sluggers chase the first pitch, especially if it’s on the edge of the plate. That first pitch would logically set up the next: a hard slider. However, Maddux would aim it a few inches over the plate so it would resemble the previous fastball, but more tempting. Please swing: That would be Maddux’ thought. Because if Schmidt did, them Maddux had him dead—not only on that pitch, but on the next one, too.
If Schmidt swung at that second-pitch slider, he couldn’t hit it, because the pitch would end up out of the strike zone. And that would prey on Schmidt’s mind. Early in Schmidt’s career, he set humiliating strikeout records because he chased breaking balls low and away. That’s why Schmidt would give up on the fastball after missing the slider. He wouldn’t want to look bad twice in a row.
Perhaps Maddux’ greatest insight into the suffering of hitters is that, for all practical baseball purposes, they’re blind.
For the third strike, Maddux would throw a fastball that started out as though it would be an inch or two outside. But Maddux can make his fastball tail in or out a couple of inches in either direction. So, he would bend it back over the outside corner. And Schmidt, who hit 548 home runs, would take it for strike three.
“But I faced them only at the end of their careers, when their bats had slowed down,” adds Maddux, not wanting to slight an opponent.
Last year in the playoffs, Maddux struck out Reggie Sanders, the Reds’ best hitter, on a change-up with the bases loaded. However, it wasn’t actually a change-up that fanned him. It wasn’t even a pitch Sanders saw in that at bat.
“Early in the game,” says Maddux, “I had thrown him a very good down-and-in fastball that he fouled off. He wouldn’t have hit it that hard unless he had been looking for it. He cheated to get to it. That meant he was really aware of the fastball running in on him.” In other words, the pitch Sanders coldcocked early in the game was really the pitch he feared.
What do you do next time you face him? You throw the pitch that, both in location and speed, is opposite to a fastball that runs into a righty’s hands: a change-up on the outside corner. Maddux did. Sanders missed it by a foot.
Sometimes Maddux seems to be the only pitcher who’s completely convinced of the difficulty—the near impossibility—of hitting a baseball consistently hard if it is thrown accurately and never twice in a row at the same speed.
“The hardest thing in the world, really, is to hit a baseball,” says Maddux. “Even good hitters have to cut off half the plate. They look for the ball inside or outside. But they can’t protect the whole plate. They can look for hard stuff or off-speed stuff. But they can’t look for one and hit the other.”
Perhaps Maddux’ greatest insight into the suffering of hitters is that, for all practical baseball purposes, they’re blind. The human eye is simply not good enough—either at judging speed or picking up spin—for a batter to hit a baseball consistently hard, unless it is thrown near the heart of the plate.
“You don’t have to throw hard, because people can’t judge speed, anyway,” says Maddux. “We can go out on the freeway right now and we can’t tell 80 miles per hour from 70 mph unless one car is passing the other. And if we stay there long enough, 70 mph starts to look like 40 mph. Your eye adjusts if it sees the same speed over and over. It’s the same to a hitter. If he sees 95-95-95, it starts to look like 50 to him. Eventually, he can time it. You can be more effective throwing 90 to 80, and changing speeds with good location. In fact, you can be almost as effective working between 80 and 70.”
Now Maddux is rolling. Nothing makes him happier than convincing himself of the most central truth in his job: He’s the dealer, he’s the house, he has the percentages on his side. All he has to do is use the cruel odds at the core of the game to torment the hitters into submission. He may be a little guy with glasses and no flashy pitches. But he knows something batters don’t. He’s found a method that renders them helpless. And he can do it over and over, year after year, just like his dad dealing stud. They’ll never beat the casino. That Las Vegas confidence, his knowledge of the tricks of the game, gives him a chilly calm.
“You can pitch in and out, but you can also pitch back and forth,” he says. By varying the speed on his fastball, he can make it arrive at the same spot a couple of feet sooner or a couple of feet later. “The hitter has only a three-inch sweet spot on the bat. If you can make the ball break just three inches, he can’t see it if the break comes late. Nobody sees the ball hit the bat. They lose sight of it before that. It’s late break, not amount of break, that matters. The closer you are to a moving object, the harder it is to see.”
It’s not just speed that stumps hitters. Few can pick up the rotation on the ball, either. Ted Williams said he could. Sometimes. “If hitters could recognize spin, everybody would hit 500,” says Maddux.
But they can’t. So they don’t.
Maddux assumes, apparently correctly, that so long as his pitches break late, when they’re less than ten feet from the plate, no living hitter has good enough eyesight to know what kind of pitch he’s swinging at.
“Unless you help them, they don’t know,” Maddux says. “Don Sutton said to make sure all your pitches look the same when they’re five feet out of your hand. Make everything come out of the same circle [i.e., the same release point] with the same arm speed. Make everything look the same. Then find ways to make the ball end up in different places and at different speeds. The more ways you can put it in more places at more speeds, the better. That’s pitching.”
No wonder those kids were bored watching Maddux. They were looking for big, breaking pitches—curves or split-finger fastballs that tumble. Maddux just wants that late, quick break. “If you want the pitch to break later, throw it harder. If you want it to break more, throw it easier,” says Maddux. “It’s just like bowling. If you want the ball to hook more, throw it easier. If you want a tighter line, throw it harder.”
Maddux has the hallmark of the original thinker: He can simplify what others find complex. He sees the idea that runs through the welter of data.
For example, Maddux uses every part of the plate except the top of the strike zone. Even with his legendary control, he rarely tries to get a hitter to chase a high fastball, even if that’s the batter’s known weakness.
“Think about it,” he says. “The only people who can pitch up successfully are the ones who, like Don Sutton or Nolan Ryan, have the big overhand curveball.” The hitter fears that the curve will drop in for a strike, even though it starts well above the zone. So, watching for the dastardly curve, he mistakes the fastball for the hook and chases it.
“To get a hitter to chase bad pitches, you have to have two pitches that look the same, but one of them ends up a strike and the other one doesn’t,” says Maddux. “That’s why Nolan Ryan could pitch higher than high. When I pitch up, I don’t get swings. But guys such as Tom Glavine, Billy Swift and me, who have good sinkers and change-ups, can do the same thing at the bottom of the strike zone. We can pitch lower than low.”
Maddux’ effectiveness can’t be separated from his playfulness. He doesn’t grind himself to dust.
If Maddux starts you off with a four-seam fastball at the knees for a strike, what do you do when the next pitch is apparently identical? Will it be another fastball for a strike? Will it be the two-seam sinker that ends up at your shins, seducing you into a weak, lunging ground ball? Or will it be the change-up that never seems to arrive, then finishes at your ankles as you strike out foolishly?
Of all the many theories concocted by veteran pitchers in the past 20 years, Maddux seems to have culled from the best, or else discovered on his own. For example, at the end of his career, 288-game winner Tommy John explained that he had always “subtracted one ball” from the count posted on the score-board. He trusted his control so much that he didn’t fear walks. Far more important, he wanted a mental edge over the hitter. They never knew the real count. The count in John’s head was the count that would inform the pitch selection. Even with the bases loaded and three balls on the hitter, John still pretended that he had only two balls on the batter. “But there’s no base open,” John was told. “Sure there is,” he answered. “Home plate’s open. It’s only one run. A home run gives ’em four.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if Greg does that, too. It feels that way,” says Cox. “But sometimes it seems like he adds a ball to the count. On 0 and 2, he never wastes a pitch. He throws what other pitchers might throw on 1 and 2.”
For decades, the Orioles have taught that the key to pitching is studying the hitter’s reaction to the previous pitch. “If a hitter is late on a fastball on the outside corner and fouls it over the dugout, what do you throw on the next pitch? There’s only one correct answer,” says Baltimore pitching coach and Cy Young winner Mike Flanagan. “He’s waiting, looking for a curve or change-up. That’s why he’s swinging so late. Well, if he can’t get around in time on an outside fastball, then he sure can’t get around on one on the inside corner. It takes longer to get the bat over the plate on the inside pitch. You have to clear your hips and get your hands in front of the plate. If they’re late on your outside fastball, then always pound ’em inside.”
Many teams construct elaborate game plans for pitching to the opposing lineup; the football mentality takes control. Big thinking is nice. Maddux is for it. But it’s the little stuff that’s crucial. “What you remember from facing hitters in the past, or from scouting reports, is a starting point,” he says. “But the last pitch is 90 percent of it. You react to what you just saw. What’s he trying to do? If his back foot gets pigeon-toed, is he trying to pull the ball? If his back foot is open, is he looking to go the other way?
“If he’s up on the plate, it usually means he likes the ball in. If he stands off the plate, he likes it away. Seems like it would be the other way around, but it’s not. That’s getting way too smart,” says Maddux, shaking his head disgustedly at getting carried away with analysis. “There’s such a fine line between doing what you do best and going after a hitter’s weakness.”
Yes, that’s an eternal baseball dilemma. Pitch from strength or to weakness? There’s no answer. Except Maddux has an answer. “It’s an easy decision,” he says. “You pitch to weakness—even if it’s not your strength—when it can’t hurt you. Like if you have a lead or nobody is on base. And you pitch from weakness where it can’t hurt you. I’m not a breaking-ball pitcher. If I use my curve in a big spot, I’ll throw it in the dirt to see if he’ll chase it.”
On any subject except pitching, you couldn’t drag a pithy phrase out of Maddux with pliers. But as soon as he talks about his art, it’s all brand-new stuff and boiled to the nub.
To look at him, you’d hardly spot Maddux for a contrarian. But he is, to the bone. When the Braves travel, the other players use expensive, identical, team-issued suitcases. Maddux uses a battered bag covered with stickers. Hence, no aggravation. Nobody takes his bag by mistake. In baseball, where century-old orthodoxy coats every concept, Maddux sees a world where everybody else has lots of big stuff backward.
In a jam a pitcher is supposed to “reach back”—throw harder and call up that extra adrenaline. It’s a test of manhood, right? Maddux calls it a crock.
“I lost enough games trying to put more on. Finally, I said, ‘Maybe I ought to try to take more off.’” That was Maddux’ first career breakthrough. His first two seasons, he was battered (8-18), sent back to the minors and considered a marginal prospect. “You get beat enough, eventually you change. I was pretty much forced to change,” he says.
“Guys who are capable of putting more on, you can count on one hand—Dwight Gooden, Steve Avery. That’s a special gift. I’m not physically capable of it. But everybody is capable of learning to take more off. Some do it better than others.”
Maddux simply views his approach as an obvious response to raw necessity. Does the “take more off” philosophy require any special gift? “It takes a little more trust in yourself,” says Maddux.
A little more trust? Yes, you could say that. Imagine you are Maddux. Let’s see, the game and maybe the season are on the line. What should you do? You’re tired. The bases are loaded. Barry Bonds is at bat. You’ve lost something off your fastball. Eureka, you’ve got it! You’ll throw a fastball, but not a very fast one. Instead, you’ll tail it away maybe another inch. And throw it in a great spot. Then come back with a change-up. But, remember, throw it even slower than normal to offer enough contrast to the fastball.
Maddux is sublimely indifferent to conventional wisdom. He rethinks every pitching proposition from scratch. “One man that has a mind and knows it can always beat ten men who haven’t and don’t,” said George Bernard Shaw. Maddux certainly knows his mind, and he beats nine men at a time regularly. No pitcher throws as many fastball strikes on the inside corner as Maddux. It may be his greatest point of pride.
Maddux could always tail his fastball into righties, jamming them. But left-handed hitters drove him crazy. He could not attack the inside corner because he couldn’t throw hard enough. He needed a pitch that would bear in to lefties, breaking their bat handles. The pitch is called a cutter, and when Maddux developed one four years ago, it transformed him.
“The biggest jump was when I learned to throw the cut fastball,” he says. Since then, nobody else has won the National League Cy Young Award.
Pitching orthodoxy says that the outside corner belongs to the pitcher and the inside corner to the hitter. You should visit the inside corner, the saying goes, but nobody can live there. Well, the orthodoxy is wrong. Maddux knows it. “The game has changed,” he says. “These days, you get more strikes on the inside and you get ’em out inside. Hitters used to concede the outside corner. But it was a different era back then. Pitchers still feel like they should stay away from the inside half.”
They’re wrong. The hitting theories of Charlie Lau and his disciples, such as Walt Hriniak, have permeated batting cages for 15 years. Big, strong hitters now stand off the plate, charge toward the dish as they stride, then pummel the ball on the outside half of the plate just as though they were extending their arms to drive a golf ball off a tee. The day of the dead-pull hitter is long gone. But pitching coaches don’t seem to know it. Now, home run champions are alley hitters who get their candy from one power alley to the other. To get them out, you have to tie them up inside.
Many pitchers don’t have the guts for the work. Modern hitters know that the fastball on the fists is their weakness, so, if you come in their kitchen, they threaten to visit the mound and beat you to a pulp with those fists.
In last year’s Series, Maddux threw underneath Eddie Murray’s hat, clearing both benches. That’s Maddux. Charge the plate on him and you take your life in your hands. Even as a rookie he challenged hitters, even the biggest. Once, he stood on the mound and screamed at 6’5”, 250-pound Dave Parker. In a Cubs meeting, he interrupted to ask the sign for the knockdown pitch.
Lots of pitchers study film of hitters. Maddux, however, even watches ESPN highlights to test his pet inside-outside theory. “Watch when they show all the home runs hit that day,” he says. “The majority are from the middle away, not the middle in. The little guys still hit home runs on the inside pitches, but the big sluggers hit the outside pitch.”
So, virtually every other pitcher has it backward. The inside half is the safer half. As they say on Wall Street, you can’t make the real big money unless you have a different opinion—and it turns out to be right.
Celebrity has replaced wealth as the great American aphrodisiac. That’s why Maddux stumps us. If he despised fame, like a grouch, then we might dismiss him as a crank. He can’t handle it, we’d say, or he fears it. He doesn’t want to admit how high he has climbed because he’d be twice as scared about the eventual fall. But that’s not Maddux. When it comes to the modern religion of fame, he’s neither a believer nor an atheist, nor even an agnostic. He’s as peculiar as a man to whom the existence of God has never seemed to be an interesting question.
“I’ve never liked arrogant people,” says Maddux. “When I got to the majors with the Cubs in 1986, I saw enough of it. I thought, I don’t want to be like that. You watch people. You see who you want to be like. In that clubhouse, I wanted to be like Ryne Sandberg, Scott Sanderson and Rick Sutcliffe.”
Not exactly three of a kind. Sandberg was classy but morosely silent, Sanderson a studious type and Sutcliffe a 6’7”, red-bearded, hot-tempered, fiercely loyal good old boy. What they had in common was a realistic sense of themselves as normal people who happened to work an abnormal job.
“I grew up in a military culture where nobody is better than anybody else. Everybody lived in the same kind of house, just with a different number on the door,” says Maddux. “We had discipline and all that. But we didn’t go overboard about it. We were Air Force, not Marines or Army.”
The incidents of his upbringing always seemed to help Maddux keep himself in perspective. He had a classic stage father. Dave Maddux was a fine fast-pitch softball pitcher for 22 years and vowed that if he ever had sons, he’d do what Mickey Mantle’s father did: teach them baseball from the cradle. Every afternoon at 3:30, Dave would take Mike and Greg into the backyard for two or three hours of baseball before dinner.
Because Mike is nearly five years older, Greg had the dual advantages of adult instruction and a big brother who beat the hell out of him and forced him to develop fast just to survive. Mike was bigger. Mike was the extrovert. Mike was a star at every level, headed to the majors in the game their father adored.
Greg had a choice: He could become a fierce competitor. Or he could be an exile from the male side of the Maddux family. Greg insists that “my parents were real good about letting us make our own decisions. One year I didn’t play baseball at all.” Believe that if you want. Or you can look at the evidence. Maddux competes at everything. All the time. From golf to Game Gear. When he goes to minor-league hockey games with Kathy, they even keep score of who wins the Name That Tune contest. Or, rather, Greg keeps a running score for the whole season.
“Greg is a playful perfectionist,” says Braves coach Jimy Williams. That’s a rare combination. Somehow, Maddux maintains a sense of relaxed fun while, simultaneously, being more focused and driven to succeed than almost anybody else.
“Sometimes he frustrates pitchers,” says Glavine. “He’ll throw a nine-inning, two-run game and talk about how bad he was and how lucky he was. We’ll just look at him and say, ‘We don’t want to hear it.’”
The Dodgers once called Orel Hershiser “Bulldog” because the nickname matched his soul even though it contradicted his choirboy face. Maddux’ nickname is Mad Dog. It seems incongruous to those who don’t really know him. Yet it’s completely appropriate to those who watch him compete every fifth day.
Even other successful obsessives—such as John Schuerholz—hold Maddux in awe. “He’s so reliant on information that he’s almost paranoid. He keeps the data on opposing hitters going into his memory bank constantly.
“This season he’s working on how to hold men on base better. So few of them get on, of course. But Greg doesn’t like to have vulnerabilities. If he decided to make that something he does better than anybody else, he would do it.”
Maddux’ effectiveness can’t be separated from his playfulness. He doesn’t grind himself to dust. “My dad never makes a bad thing into the worst thing that’s ever happened in his life. I’m like that,” says Maddux. “Some people dwell on everything and drag it out. Blow it off. Same with the good stuff.”
What does Maddux do during the off-season, when some players are in winter ball or doing head-to-toe makeovers of their physiques? “I stay in Vegas and have fun,” says Maddux. “I work out four times a week for about an hour and a quarter. That’s it. I’d say I’m a hard worker, but not a real hard worker. Not nearly as hard as people make it out.”
If you’re a huge success in America, then you must be a workaholic. It’s a rule. But Maddux isn’t. So there. Cope with it. The next time the boss says the competition is rising before dawn, tell him you and Maddux are sleeping in.
In everything, Maddux travels light. His idea of fashion is a new pair of sweatsocks. Lord knows what kind of clunker he’d drive if it weren’t for Kathy. “That’s why you get married,” he says. “So there’s somebody to say, ‘Honey, let’s go for a test-drive.’”
Like Brooks Robinson, and perhaps no other Hall of Famer of the preceding generation, Maddux has such a clean, sharp perception of himself as a dignified common man that his self-image is accepted as reality by everybody around him.
If you want to see his hackles rise just a bit, ask him why, if he’s really what he seems to be, he lives in Las Vegas, the phoniest city on earth.
“It’s my home. I grew up there. I have family and friends there. It’s the people I know in the city that make the city for me,” he says, as close as he gets to defiant. “People think Las Vegas is the Strip—a bunch of lights, a lot of gambling, drinking and prostitutes. It’s not like that. We got parks, Little League, churches, theaters, Denny’s—all the things other cities have. The Strip is an extra bonus. We have the best entertainment in the world. If you want to go to the park and feed the ducks with your kids, you can do that. But if you have insomnia and want to knock out the grocery list at three A.M., they’ll have a slot machine in the store.”
No matter how much he accomplishes—and a pitcher with a 151-94 record on his 30th birthday has about a 50-50 shot at 300 wins—it’s doubtful that Maddux’ profile will grow appreciably with the years. Virtue bores even those who have it.
“That’s just the way it is,” says Maddux of the human preference for chocolate ripple with walnuts over plain vanilla. “When I’m watching Sports Center and see linebacker Bryan Cox, I enjoy his interviews. They’re different, controversial, emotional. Sometimes negative things are entertaining. If I were a producer and had an interview like that or a guy saying nice things about everybody, I’d run the one that was more entertaining, more of a story.”
As the greatest players age or set records, they become central symbols of their sport, even if their performance has slipped a notch. They often pay the game back by becoming public icons at the expense of their personal privacy. Cal Ripken Jr. is already a public statue.
Would Maddux ever play the role that, in recent years, has been handled with such forbearance by Nolan Ryan and now by Ripken?
“Cal’s in a different league. This guy was baseball for the last two or three months of last season. The only good coming out of the game was Cal. I know, as a player, I appreciated it,” says Maddux. “If I had my choice, no, I really would not want that kind of fame. I’m not saying it would be that bad. But if I had a choice I would probably prefer that it not happen.”
He’s reached the point where the only way to avoid it is to stop going 19-2, the best season percentage in history, and winning the Cy Young every year.
Maddux probably isn’t in the Hall of Fame yet. Four years of perfection is incredible. Make no mistake, in baseball terms a 75-29 record with an ERA of 1.93 is a working definition of perfection. But fans forget quickly. Jim Rice had three years in the Seventies when he was to hitting what Maddux is now to pitching. His eyes went bad; he’ll never get a sniff of Cooperstown. For six straight years in the Eighties, Don Mattingly was as good as Stan Musial. But he got old fast. He’s beloved. But he’ll never merit a bronze plaque.
The distinction that Maddux can claim already is that, in his prime, he was the most effective right-handed pitcher—relative to his league and his era—since Walter Johnson. Maddux is the only pitcher since the Big Train (in 1912 to 1915) whose ERA (1.93) has been less than half of the league’s ERA (3.96). In other words, Maddux has been twice as efficient as the league during the past four years.
Decency demands that Maddux not be compared to Koufax at his peak. From 1962 to 1966, Koufax went 111-34, compared with Maddux’ strike-abbreviated 75-29 record. Also, Koufax won every ERA title and averaged 289 strikeouts a season.
Still, Maddux has reached a point where he wins most comparisons to any Tom Seaver, Jim Palmer, Bob Gibson, Bob Feller, or Steve Carlton you can name. True, Maddux strikes out only about 198 men per 162-game season. But no dominant starter since Christy Mathewson (pre-World War One) has matched Maddux’ control. In 1994 and 1995 Maddux went 35-8 with just 54 walks in 53 starts.
We should appreciate Maddux now because, with the right injury, he could lose his almost mythical control within the strike zone. And that’s the core of his craft. Game after game, he can pinpoint two different fastballs on both halves of the plate, and also throw change-ups for knee-high strikes. Sometimes, he can even work his will over his curve and slider, too. Without that command, as it’s now termed, he’d be Nolan Ryan without a fastball.
You can’t find anybody in baseball who’s ever seen a pitcher who had better control of more pitches in different parts of the strike zone than Maddux. Even as great a pitcher as Jim Palmer will tell you that the only pitch he was fairly sure he could locate within a couple of inches was a fastball on the outside half of the plate. He was never completely comfortable pitching in tight or throwing curves for strikes or putting a change-up in a specific quadrant of the plate. He approximated.
“I considered it an honor to face him. It was really a pleasure,” says Bobby Bonilla, who, as a Pirate and a Met, faced Maddux for many years. “He has this ability to think like you’re thinking. It’s almost like he’s playing a game with himself. You might not get one good pitch to hit in a whole game.
“He claims he pitches off the last pitch? There’s something to that,” says Bonilla. “But don’t forget that first pitch: strike one. That’s the one that makes him so good. Seems like he’s always ahead of you. His first pitch could also be the last decent pitch you see. So don’t wait too long up there.”
For four seasons, Maddux has painted the black, lived on the long end of the count and expanded the plate so mercilessly that hitters feel as if they’re defending a manhole cover, not a 16-inch-wide dish. Six-time batting champion Tony Gwynn says Maddux has improved so radically that the terms of their confrontation have reversed. Once, Gwynn owned Maddux. Now, if a time at bat were played for life-and-death stakes, Gwynn admits he’d probably be dead.
Because Maddux has never missed a start, even in high school, and because he fields his position with such Gold Glove quickness that he seems an unlikely candidate to be maimed by a line drive, it’s easy to assume that Maddux can stay in his blessed zone indefinitely.
However, when other major leaguers watch a man on such a fantasy run, they tend to see a beautiful ice sculpture melting in the sun. They assume such a blend of youth, health, confidence and luck can’t last. Usually, it doesn’t.
Maddux knows that the record book says that, pretty soon, he’ll regress to the historic mean of his own career. From 1988 to 1991 he was 67-46 with a 3.24 ERA. Even if he stays healthy, Maddux will return to that form. But will it happen soon? Or in 2000? He says he doesn’t care.
“I’ve gotten more out of this game than I ever dreamed. I’m on extra credit already,” says Maddux. “I don’t feel like I have the right to ask for more.
“I feel like I owe the game. It doesn’t owe me. And I know I enjoy it more now than five years ago. I’ll probably appreciate it more every season.”
See, he pulls you in, this apotheosis of the average man, this decent, modest craftsman as athlete. He is all of us. Sort of. Yet he generates from his own experience, and lives out, the underlined passages that we just read. “There is always a best way of doing everything, if it be to boil an egg.” “Not being able to rule events, I rule myself.” Emerson, Montaigne, Maddux? You can’t be sure. Maybe he’s more than a pitcher.
“Sooner or later he’s not going to win the Cy Young Award and people will say, ‘What’s wrong with Greg Maddux?’ That’s not fair,” says Glavine. However, even Glavine senses that Maddux may be granted an uncommon kind of clemency in a culture that loves to raise up its celebrities and then dash them.
“His type of personality goes a long way,” says Glavine. “Here’s a guy who’s so humble and so in tune with what he’s doing that it’s hard to find people who are waiting for him to fail. He’s such an ordinary guy that everybody enjoys his success.”
Greg Maddux, the ordinary guy, baseball’s patron saint of moderation, is throwing between starts. His workout includes almost as many full-speed pitches as a complete game. He never changes expression, never says a word. Pitch after pitch nips a corner or dances just off the edge. Everything breaks late. Everything looks like everything else until the last split second. Lay the philosophy and the encomiums aside. Think of him as the dealer, the house, the sharp-eyed Vegas lifer who knows the trick of three-card monte. His confidence is absolute. The odds are with him. You need luck to beat him. He needs nothing. “Nate Luck” is a con. If he executes correctly, sooner or later you will go home in a barrel. Last year. Next year. Maybe for a long time.
In his entire workout, Maddux throws only two truly bad pitches in 100. Once, he holds on to a fastball too long. It bounces in the left-hand batter’s box. Maddux breaks his silence. “Shit,” he screams. Much later, he bounces a change-up in front of the plate. “Fuck,” he bellows like a rifle shot.
Afterward he is asked if, perhaps, the playful perfectionist is a bit too hard on himself. Two bad pitches, two explosive curses? What hidden fires are these? After all, in hours of interviews he has barely said a swearword.
“There are a lot of shots in golf I can’t hit, but I try to hit them anyway. The frustration is not there, because I’m still learning. But I really know how to do this. I’m not just hoping to get it where I want it,” Maddux says, the playfulness receding, the commonsense, common-man philosopher completely absent and the Mad Dog poker-dealing competitor surfacing fast.
“Let the other guys do it half-assed.”