As a rule, I don’t like re-reading my stuff. (It was bad enough reading it the first time.) But I make an exception because Greg Maddux will be inducted into the Braves’ Hall of Fame tonight and I’ll be there and, of the dozen or so Maddux columns I’ve written over the years, this one I hated least. (And not because I did anything special therein. Because Maddux’s quotes were ace.)
I wrote it early in what would become the Strike Season, the truncated entity that yielded Mad Dog’s third (of four) consecutive Cy Young awards. And I do remember Mr. Ron Martin, then the AJC’s editor, saying he liked this one. So maybe it wasn’t too awful. Anyway, I re-submit it for your approval:
Barbra Streisand once described Andre Agassi, the tennis player from Las Vegas, as a Zen master. Greg Maddux is likewise from Vegas, and doggone if there isn’t a hint of Zen about him, too. He seldom changes expression. When speaking, his voice rises only a notch above a whisper. To hear Maddux discourse on pitching is to get a lesson not in the exotic but the basic. If he has a philosophy, it’s this: “Just keep it simple.”
An illustration: He describes his fastball as his best pitch. Of every 100 pitches he throws, he estimates 70 will be fastballs. His fastball travels 85 mph, tops. By big-league standards, this is a lukewarm heater. Yet this man of modest velocity has won consecutive Cy Young awards and, having yielded but one earned run in three 1994 starts, is tracking a third. You ask: How?
Says Maddux: “You stand in the middle of the road and a car’s coming at you. Can you tell how fast it’s going? Can you tell if it’s going 55 or 60? You can’t. It’s the same standing in the middle of the diamond trying to hit a baseball. As a pitcher, you’re better off making 75 [mph] look like 85 instead of making 87 look like 90. . . . I remember watching Fernando [Valenzuela] after he hurt his arm. He was throwing 10 miles an hour less but jamming more guys and breaking more bats.”
The point being, it’s not how fast but how well. Asked to describe himself, the first thing Maddux says is “a finesse pitcher.” Then he corrects himself: “I’m a control pitcher who changes speeds.” How does that differ from being a finesse type? Because Maddux relies on his fastball to make all else work. “Unless you’re a knuckleball pitcher, every pitcher pitches off his fastball.”
Those pitchers he watches most closely are those, he says, with “a fastball that does the same thing as mine, like [Orel] Hershiser.” And what does the Maddux fastball do? It moves.
Even after he reached the majors in 1987, Maddux would loose fastballs without a sense of their destination. “I’d throw sinkers, sailers and cutters, and I never knew why they did what they did.” He has since learned. “It’s in the way I release it, ” he says. He has a nice sinker, but his best pitch is the cut fastball, which bends in on left-handed hitters and looks like a slider, except that “it’s harder and doesn’t break as much.”
In the hands of another pitcher, the cutter might seem a weapon of small bore. Maddux makes it work because he mixes it with his other pitches — slider, curve, change — and because he operates with a palpable sense of purpose. He points to a sheet of paper bearing the names of the St. Louis hitters he’ll face tonight. Beside each name he has written a brief notation. He reads aloud: ” ‘Slow early, in late.’ ‘Mix.’ ‘Can jam.’ ‘Will chase.’ ‘Dead-red [fastball] hitter.’ ‘This guy’s aggressive.’ “
He folds the paper. “That’s it. Nothing elaborate.”
Scouting reports are fine, but they go only so far. Says Maddux: “A pitcher has to learn himself first. He has to learn what pitches he can and can’t throw, then try to set up hitters. You can’t be throwing your third-best pitch just because it says a guy is a slider-speed hitter.”
When golfers talk about course management, they essentially mean they think ahead. Sometimes Maddux, a fine golfer, will think ahead when pitching. Other times he won’t. “I never try to think about the outcome of a game, ” he says. “I only have five things [his various pitches] to worry about. I don’t try to look and see who’s on deck. I like for it to be a surprise. That means you’re focused.”
There are, however, moments when peeking is mandatory. Take Maddux’s last start, the 96-pitch dismissal of San Francisco. “We had a two-run lead with [Barry] Bonds hitting fifth. That tells me that I can only make one mistake that inning. You don’t want a guy like that to beat you. People think you stay up all night trying to figure out how to get people out: Sometimes the way to pitch the best hitters is to get the two guys in front of them.”
A listener asks how long it took to accumulate such knowledge. Maddux, who seldom looks surprised, looks surprised. “I’m still learning, ” he says.
(P.S. I made reference in the column to Maddux facing the Cardinals “tonight.” How’d he do? Well, he lost 5-4. It was the first of his six losses — against 16 wins — in the shortened season. He lost on two unearned runs in the seventh; Terry Pendleton made an error and Mike Stanton yielded a go-ahead single to Bernard Gilkey after Gerald Perry had touched Maddux for the tying double. By Mad Dog standards, it was a shoddy performance: Eight hits, three walks, a homer to Todd Zeile and three whole earned runs, which blew up his ERA clear to 1.12.)
Logistical update: I’m at the ballpark, and I’m here just to write about Maddux. Meaning: If Jair Jurrjens throws a no-hitter, I won’t write a word about the feat. (Yes, I’m kidding.)
OK, here’s the column: In which I reveal for the first time that Greg Maddux is a phony.