Tom Glavine was the one who got it all going and who was MVP of the only World Series the Atlanta Braves won, and John Smoltz was the one who saw the run of excellence through until its ridiculously delayed end. They were great pitchers, first-ballot Hall of Famers. Greg Maddux was more than just a great pitcher. He was the greatest of his era — yes, this includes Roger Clemens — and among the five greatest ever.
Glavine had more 20-win seasons (five to Maddux’s two, and one of the two was as a Cub). Smoltz was more utilitarian (a 24-win season and a 55-save season). But Maddux stands above his longtime companions — first among equals, if you will — because of his matchless consistency.
The Braves will induct Mad Dog — or “Doggie,” or, as Bobby Cox sometimes had it, just “Mad” — into their Hall of Fame tomorrow, and such a designation for this particular pitcher seems slightly off. Maddux was never really “famous” in the way Clemens was famous. (Then again, Clemens is now infamous.) Maddux was just without peer at what he did, and what he did, in his unassuming words, was to “try and make pitches and get guys out.” (See YouTube video below, courtesy of Fox Sports.)
For 17 consecutive seasons, Maddux won at least 15 games. (Yes, that’s a record.) Yes, the first five and the final one came as a Cub, but think of it this way: In the winter of 1992 the Braves signed a free agent who would, without fail, give them at least 15 victories in every season for more than a decade. Not for nothing did Stan Kasten call Maddux “the greatest free-agent signing ever,” and the only one that rivals him is the guy who signed with San Francisco a few days earlier at those same winter meetings at the Galt House in Louisville, Ky. — Barry Bonds.
From 1992 through 1995, Maddux was almost as dominant as Sandy Koufax was from 1963 through 1966, which figures to stand forever as the finest string of pitching the game has ever known. (Koufax had an ERA under 2.00 in three of those four years; Maddux had an ERA under 2.00 in two of his four.) But here’s the difference: After 1966, Koufax never threw another pitch. After 1995, Maddux won 205 more games.
My neighbor Dan Reagan, who used to direct Braves telecasts for TBS and who now does games for ESPN, used to get irritated because the national media never affixed an aura to Maddux. He was never a Clemens, a Pedro, a Big Unit. He was just … Greg Maddux. Which was fine with Greg Maddux.
Indeed, I once asked Maddux about Randy Johnson, and Maddux shrugged — Maddux was big on shrugging — and said, “He throws his slider harder than I throw my fastball.” He also said, of Johnson’s famous sobriquet, “Only good players get cool nicknames.”
But here’s the thing: With his underwhelming fastball and his modest nickname, Maddux outpitched the Big Unit, outpitched Pedro, outpitched even Clemens. Yes, Clemens had more Cy Youngs — seven to Maddux’s four — but Clemens also had four seasons in the ’90s where he totaled 40 victories. And nobody ever suggested Maddux would test positive for anything other than trans fats. (Don Sutton: “Greg Maddux’s idea of training is to run, not walk, to Burger King.”)
In the 10 seasons of the exalted partnership, we Atlantans were spoiled beyond measure. We saw three bound-for-Cooperstown pitchers take regular turns, feeding off one another as they went. We saw Glavine with the changeup and Smoltz with the slider, and somehow the guy we noticed least was the best of the three.
Greg Maddux didn’t really do anything special. He just made pitches and got guys out. Except that he made most all the pitches and got nearly every guy out every fifth day of his baseball life.