Let’s call Greg Maddux’s march to the Hall of Fame a victory for little guys everywhere.
Maddux wasn’t exactly a shrimp — 6 feet, between 180 and 190 pounds during his career — but he had all the intimidating aspects of the nerd behind the Genius Bar at an Apple store or the introspective fellow serving you coffee at Starbuck’s. A scout said, in effect, when Maddux was struggling to get attention as a star high school pitcher, if he looked more like a Charles Atlas than a young Charles Darwin, he’d be the first pick in the draft.
But there were two thing about Maddux that could not be discerned from his physical stature: desire and skill. Greg’s older brother, Mike, also a major-league pitcher, once said that as a boy if Greg ‘‘couldn’t win, he wouldn’t play.’’
Behind that everyday appearance and blank face, later decorated with glasses that earned him the occasional nickname, Mr. Peepers, lay a cold-blooded, precise, high-tech pitching machine. Velocity was not the thing with Maddux. Location, movement, focus, mind games, preparation were. He could hit the invisible corners of an umpire’s strike zone again and again and again. A neurosurgeon would be blessed to have his unflappable delicacy and control.
Imagine, Maddux once threw 51 consecutive innings without issuing a walk. Most modern pitchers can’t go 51 pitches without giving up a walk. Even when he was at the tail end of his career, winding down with the Dodgers in 2008, his 1.4 walks given up per 9 innings was the best in the majors.
You’d think such a control freak simply would get ground balls and undercut pop flies for outs, but Maddux could make batters swing at pitches they knew they could hit but couldn’t. His 3,371 career strikeouts are ridiculous, made more so by the fact he gave up only 999 walks.
So many of his stats are absurd that it was a blessing to get to vote for him for the Hall. So many great players come to us voters with doubts attached —Are those really enough doubles? Should he have played in more All-Star Games? — that Maddux was simply a rubber stamp. Put him in. Now.
Just one more stat, because it’s a crazy, telling one. Maddux won an insane 18 consecutive Gold Gloves, with nobody else at any position close. What that says is his perfectionism and control carried over to fielding, to throwing, to covering first base, to all the other parts of the complex game.
We all have memories of Maddux, whether with the Cubs or, of course — and this is another story entirely, and a miserable one — with the Braves, where he won three Cy Young Awards. I have two.
First, and this was in 1989, I believe, Maddux was on the mound during a practice at Wrigley Field, with Joe Girardi catching, somebody on first base, and one of the coaches observing. Everybody else was long gone. In time Girardi left, no longer needed. And Maddux made beautiful, precise throw after throw to first base. Again and again. Eyes at plate. Glove and ball on chest. Stock still on the mound. Then — whap — the bullet to first. From such work he became probably the best right-handed pitcher in the majors at holding men on first and picking them off. Thus, fewer men getting to second. Thus, fewer in scoring position. Thus lower ERA. Thus, more wins.
The other time was when Maddux came back to Wrigley Field as a Brave one day, and a few of us writers were sitting with him in the visitor’s dugout, talking about everything. Of course, the main topic was why he couldn’t have stayed with the Cubs. Why did Larry Himes and Scott Boras let the contract thing become so contentious?
Maddux handled it all with equanimity. Stuff happens, you know? Let’s move on.
Then I mentioned to him that all these young pitchers coming up seemed to be fireballers, smoking balls into the high-90s, even 100s. And here he had, what, a fastball that topped out at 88-89 mph?
For an instant he got that icy, I’ll-cut-your-heart-out-and-show-it-to-you look.
‘‘Eighty-nine’s pretty fast,’’ he snapped.
Like a bullet train to Cooperstown.