Greg Maddux, clearly one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history, was honored last Friday by his reception into the Atlanta Braves Hall of Fame. In four more years Maddux will be chosen by the writers for the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. The only reason it will take this long is because the rules for induction require a five-year period following retirement.
Greg Maddux was the best pitcher I saw pitch in my lifetime. I saw a whole lot of great ones pitch in person. I had the privilege of seeing Juan Marichal, Warren Spahn, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Bob Gibson, Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson, Ferguson Jenkins and a host of other great pitchers from the 1950s until today. But Greg Maddux is still the best, at least for my money. He was clearly the smartest pitcher I ever saw perform, which I shall explain in a moment.
For those who don’t follow baseball Greg Maddux was the first pitcher in major league history to win the Cy Young Award for four consecutive years (1992-1995), a feat matched only by Randy Johnson (1999-2002), another first ballot Hall of Fame pitcher. During the four consecutive seasons that Maddux won his awards he had a 75-29 record with a 1.98 ERA. He allowed less than one runner per inning over the course of those four years. I saw him pitch at least six to eight times during this four season stretch. I saw him in Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee and Cincinnati. There was no one better, including the famed Roger Clemons. Watching Maddux carve up a team was like watching a master portrait painter do his work on a huge canvass.
Greg Maddux is the only pitcher in MLB history to win at least 15 games for 17 straight seasons, thus he was a model of consistency and perseverance.He was also one of best fielders to ever play his position. He won eighteen Gold Gloves. Maddux never threw hard, maybe hitting 90 in his prime, and yet he is eighth on the all-time career wins list with 355 victories. In a record that you do not hear about very often Maddux pitched 51 consecutive innings in 1995 without issuing a single walk. I remember the night the streak was finally broken and how disappointed I was. I felt he could have done it for 50 more innings since he was that good.
Since the start of the post-1920 live-ball era only Warren Spahn (363) recorded more career wins than Greg Maddux. And both Maddux and Spahn pitched for my team, the Braves. What more could a die-hard fan ask for? The games these two greats pitched were usually short, well-pitched and interesting to analyze if you were a thinking fan who really got into the ebb-and-flow of the game.
I had the privilege of meeting Greg Maddux once. (He did not attend chapel when I spoke on several different occasions.) He was a truly gracious superstar who always showed respect for others and the game of baseball. He was raised a military kid and spent a great deal of his childhood overseas. He was taught to pitch by his dad and then trained by a coach in Las Vegas who taught him to throw softer when he was in a jam, not harder. This was one of Greg Maddux’s most unique approaches to pitching. He would take something off a pitch and the hitters would get themselves out. When asked about this philosophy of pitching Maddux said, “I believed it. I don’t know why. I just did.” Besides being a staff ace Maddux influenced other pitchers on his teams over the course of his career, making many believe he would be a great pitching coach if he ever chose to pursue such a career. (It is rumored the Braves would like to hire him to help them next year.)
After being signed and developed by the Cubs (where he won his first Cy Young Award) the general manager of the Cubs made a huge mistake and allowed Maddux to leave the organization, thus he signed with the Atlanta Braves. I still remember the day that I heard the Braves had signed him. I shouted out loud in my car: “We are going to be really good for a long time! This will be fun.” I saw Greg make his Braves' debut in person when he was the Braves opening day starter against the Cubs at Wrigley Field, beating his former teammates 1–0. The fans booed him for the entire game but the Braves fans enjoyed a memorable beginning to a great run of success over the next eleven years.
Perhaps the most interesting game Maddux ever pitched is one that is rarely talked about. On May 28, 1995, he beat the Houston Astros, losing a no-hitter on an eighth-inning home run to famed slugger Jeff Bagwell. What is not talked about is how Maddux pitched to Bagwell that evening. He had told his catcher, Eddie Perez, that he was never to call for an inside pitch to Bagwell all night. In the eight inning, with the Braves leading 8-0 and Maddux having a no-hitter, he insisted they pitch Bagwell inside. Bagwell crushed an inside pitch and the Braves won 8-1. Maddux lost his shutout and, more importantly, his no-hit bid. What is amazing about this pitch was that Maddux was later asked by Perez why he changed his mind about pitching inside to Bagwell. Maddux answered, “I may have to see him in a crucial post-season game so I threw him that pitch when it didn’t matter that much in order to put that into his mind. The next time he sees me in the late innings, and the game might really matter a lot more, he will remember.” Well, Maddux did face Bagwell in the post-season and the bases were loaded with the game on the line. Bagwell was looking for that same inside pitch on a 3-2 count. Maddux refused to give it to him and Bagwell, fooled by the Maddux pitch choice, struck out! I can’t think of a single story that better explains why Greg Maddux’s style and determination are admired by everyone who knows the game of baseball. He knew how to pitch and thus accomplished more with less power and raw ability than any pitcher in our lifetime.
The Braves retired Maddux's number 31 last week. At the luncheon held that day Bobby Cox said, "I get asked all the time was he the best pitcher I ever saw.” And I am asked "Was he the smartest pitcher I ever saw? The most competitive I ever saw? The best teammate I ever saw? The answer is yes to all of those." From a future Hall of Fame manager that is high praise. As a lifelong fan I have to agree. He was clearly the best I ever saw.