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Greg Maddux: The Smartest Man in Baseball Set to Get His Due

Greg Maddux displayed classic, old-school baseball, which any discerning pundit craves in a sanitized era mandated by nervous, image-conscious Lords of the Game.

Greg Maddux
Greg Maddux

Scottsdale, AZ, USA; Team USA pitching coach Greg Maddux leans against the dugout railing during the ninth inning against the Colorado Rockies at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

In Pikeville, Ky. in the summer of 1984, the Hall of Fame might as well have been on Mars for 18-year-old Greg Maddux.

Only a madman can predict enshrinement three decades later for a raw kid fresh out of high school in Las Vegas, just trying to make good as a second-round draft choice of the Chicago Cubs.

In rookie ball in Pikeville, with future Brewers pitching coach Rick Kranitz as his youthful coaching mentor, the only long-range goal Maddux could project is defying the washout odds. Certainly, 50 percent or more of high draft picks fail, never seeing one inning of big-league service, and many not even making it as far as Triple-A.

Yet, even this early, the “character” aspect that is perceived as so crucial to enshrinement was on full display for the unassuming Maddux, projected as the favorite to lead a strong – and clean — 2014 Hall of Fame class when the vote is announced on Jan. 8.

One legendary story had all the young Cubs farmhand pitchers called together for a meeting. From the back of the room, emanating from a personage who looked as young as the batboy, came the question, “What’s the sign for the brushback pitch?” It was Maddux, his baseball intellect already in full gear, his firm advocacy as a good teammate already developed.

That’s why Maddux strongly deserves induction, even more than the sheer numbers: his slam-dunk 355 victories, status as a control master with more than 3,000 strikeouts and less than 1,000 walks, ERA of just 2.18 pitching in Wrigley Field in 1992, a 19-2 record in 1995 in Atlanta, and four consecutive Cy Young Awards.

I was fortunate to cover Maddux start to finish in his career. Through those 23 seasons, two consistencies of his personality were evident. He broke down pitching to its simplicity.

Locating his fastball was his brief explanation for success. “Practice” was another answer for his razor-sharp control.

Even more striking was his militancy about being a good teammate, of fitting into the team concept no matter how stellar his own abilities. Put together, these qualities made Maddux the smartest man in baseball, hence one nickname: “The Professor.” Other tag, “Mad Dog,” “Doggie” or “The Baby-Faced Assassin” honored his quiet ferocity on the field.

On Sept. 5, 1992 at Wrigley, I witnessed the essence of Maddux. Bearing in on his first 20-win season, he was locked in a 3-3 tie with the San Diego Padres in the seventh inning. In the bottom of the seventh, Pods’ reliever Jose Melendez nearly hit Ryne Sandberg in the head. No warning was issued by home-plate ump Ed Montague.

When San Diego catcher Dan Walters came up with two outs in the top of the eighth and nobody on, Maddux hit him in the back. Montague immediately ejected Maddux.

“Maddux is such a strong competitor,” Montague explained afterward, “that in my mind I know he’s going to retaliate. I was hoping he wouldn’t. But if it’s flagrant, I’ve got to get rid of him….Melendez just doesn’t have the control of Maddux. Maddux was on the plate all day. The ball got away from Melendez.”

Maddux put the potential lead run on base, even at his own expense. Reliever Jeff Robinson immediately served up a go-ahead two-run homer to left fielder Jerald Clark. Maddux was charged with his 11th loss of the season. But with his teammates knowing he always had their backs, and then some, he would not lose again, finishing with 20 victories and his first Cy Young Award.

Maddux displayed classic, old-school baseball, which any discerning pundit craves in a sanitized era mandated by nervous, image-conscious Lords of the Game. At the same time of the protect-Ryno act, Maddux showed even more why character goes a long way, all the way to Cooperstown.

Understanding the pecking order of a clubhouse, Maddux did not assert his leadership until veteran right-hander Rick Sutcliffe departed the Cubs via free agency after 1991 – even though he surpassed Sutcliffe in effectiveness three years previously. Once in place as the pitching staff’s leader at 26, Maddux became a de facto assistant pitching coach to Billy Connors.

Las Vegas buddy Mike Morgan and fellow right-hander Frank Castillo benefited from his baseball intellect. Maddux concocted a secret set of signs, relayed from him on the bench through the catcher, most often future manager Joe Girardi. He called pitches for Morgan and Castillo, both of whom enjoyed good seasons in 1992.

Castillo, Morgan, and Cubs manager Jim Lefebvre all admitted the sign-relaying system at the time. A year later, the effusive Morgan even displayed a sample of the signs. Cubs coach Billy Williams, a Hall of Famer, also told of the signs. But Maddux denied it at the time, claiming it was “ballclub business.” Interestingly, when Maddux returned to the Cubs in 2004 after his 11-season tenure in Atlanta, he still refused to admit the secret system.

Magicians never admit how they perform their tricks, and Maddux was a master. But as a courtesy to those who followed him and tried to understand him, he offered up half a loaf from time to time.

One day as a Brave, he took hold of a bat in the visitor’s dugout at Wrigley Field. Pointing at the length of the bat, Maddux quietly explained the object of the game was to have the batter make contact with the end or the handle, avoiding the meat, all the better to produce a harmless grounder. Another time, the best control pitcher of modern times admitted it was strategically proper to pitch around a hitter, if not walk him outright.

Maddux simply had a foresight and dedication to his craft that psychologically overpowered hitters, even after he had dialed down his maximum-speed fastball, around 93 mph in the late 1980s, to produce better results with location.

Outfielder Doug Glanville couldn’t figure out why Maddux would quick-pitch him for strike on many times when he came to the plate. Eventually he figured out his feet weren’t fully planted in position, a nuance Maddux noticed like a predatory hawk and used to his advantage.

Master batsman Tony Gwynn, who raked Maddux early in his career, eventually gave up on Maddux’s specialty, a tailing fastball that headed straight for a left-handed hitter, then darted at the last second over the inside corner. This might have been the only pitch on which Gwynn gave up. He said there was nothing a hitter could do with that serve. All the hitter could do is simply take the pitch and hope the next offering would arrive further out over the plate.

Other hitters slammed locker-room tables after an 0-for-4 outing against Maddux, swearing the man could read their minds as they batted.

I remember the pick-your-poison debate in the Cubs clubhouse: do you swing at Maddux’s first pitch before he could work on you, or try to wait him out in the chance he’d throw a hittable pitch. It didn’t matter. You might as well take your beating quickly. In one 1997 game, Maddux disposed of his old team on just 78 pitches.

Every Maddux triumph over the Cubs was another knife to the gut. Among all-time big-league bungling that included the Lou Brock trade in 1964 and the Bartman Incident in 2003, the Cubs’ screwup of Maddux contract in 1991-92 was far in front.

In the summer of 1991, with one more full season before he achieved free agency, Maddux told me in a dugout conversation if his contract would be settled in the upcoming off-season, he and wife Kathy would buy a home in Chicago. He never wanted to leave his original organization and Wrigley Field, a ballpark in which he enjoyed pitching and to which he said played bigger than the Astrodome when the wind blew in.

But if the Cubs, baseball’s traditionally most poorly-managed franchise, could screw it up, they’d do it, and in this case lose their own home-grown ace of aces.

Maddux went against agent Scott Boras’ advice and dropped the no-trade clause in a proposed five-year, $25 million contract in the 1991-92 off-season. But amid a vacuum of leadership – GM Jim Frey had been stripped of power just prior to being demoted to scout — the Cubs arrogantly pulled the offer from the table because Maddux did not accept the deal prior to a 5 p.m. Friday deadline.

Cubs chairman Stanton Cook, a former Tribune Co. CEO, and hired-gun attorney Dennis Homerin were power-hungry, but baseball-ignorant. The price of pitching on the free-agent market or via trade is always steeper than re-upping your own young guy, who was so superior to any other Cubs pitcher.

Boras even prepared the telling numbers in a free-agent prospectus now maintained in the Jerome Holtzman Library of the Chicago Baseball Museum. The figures were black and white: team-wise the Cubs had a winning record when Maddux pitched; a losing mark otherwise. Ditto with almost any other hurler on the staff.

After the artificial contract-agreement deadline was missed, Maddux and Boras then stiffened in their demands. But the wannabe-loyal Cub still gave the team two more chances to sign him.

The final window was left open at the last second soon after coming back to Wrigley Field to accept his Cy Young Award, before he spurned a more lucrative Yankees deal to sign with the Braves after the ’92 season.

Interestingly, once the Braves finally let him go due to money and inevitable decline, Maddux came back to Chicago to round out the Mark PriorKerry WoodCarlos ZambranoMatt Clement rotation in 2004. And when his career finally concluded in 2008, Maddux’s first toe-dip in front-office work was as an advisor to Cubs GM Jim Hendry.

Typically, another management change in the Tom Ricketts ownership meant Maddux would leave yet again, this time to advise the Texas Rangers, where brother Mike Maddux was the well-regarded pitching coach.

Now Mad Dog will get to stay in one place for baseball eternity. No way the Baseball Writers Association of America, noted for their eccentric Hall of Fame voting, can goof this up as badly as the Cubs. Numbers, brains, and character will add up for their just reward this time.

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