Saturday, December 06, 2008

Greg Maddux

In 1999, you may recall, the All-Star Game was at Fenway Park. The Red Sox' last series before the break was in Atlanta. I was on the trip as second Herald guy to back up beat reporter Tony Massarotti for one reason. I was, and am, a fast writer.

If there's one thing the Herald was good at in my day, it was going ape over big sports events. We had a special section planned for the paper that came out the day of the All-Star Game about the size of one of Tolstoy's deeper novels. I believe my three stories were Nomar, Jeter, and A-Rod, and I was only one of I think 11 Herald writers for the game.

But the pre-game access to the All-Stars would be in a hotel ballroom in Boston Monday. At noon. Tony and I had the last Sunday evening flight from Atlanta home, a 7 p.m. job. First pitch in Turner Field was 1:08 p.m. We HAD to make the plane, but then again, we couldn't leave in the eighth inning after filing partial-score stories. Making matters jollier, afternoon thunderstorms were forecast. We were, in a word, screwed.

Except we weren't. Greg Maddux was the Braves' starting pitcher. Against a DH-less Sox lineup, Maddux worked with his usual bland precision. Strike one, strike two, grounder to the infield. Toss ball around infield. Repeat. When the cumulus clouds started to build up in the seventh, Maddux bore down and got guys out on TWO pitches. He had a plane to Boston, too.

Braves won, I forget the final score, but I'll never forget the time of game. 2:06. I hustled down to the Atlanta clubhouse to write about my new hero, Maddux. He had saved my professional bacon. So how'd he do it? How in the peak of the steroid-addled homer-addicted baseball of the '90s had he thrown a complete game lifted out of the 1907 season?

Maddux, a trim but hardly buff athlete, looked at me with surprise. Had I SEEN a baseball game before, he thought but was too polite to say.

"It all starts with location of my fastball," Maddux DID say. "When that works, everything works."

Just so. Maddux's fastball was never compared to that of Bob Feller, or that of his contemporaries Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens. It clocked in at a respectable but hardly frightening 90 mph, give or take an mph. But no pitcher of his time, or maybe of any time, could equal Maddux's ability at one simple, magical feat -- making the ball cross home plate at the exact spot he wanted it to.

Control (I refuse to use its bastard stepchild synonym "command") IS pitching. At the most basic level, if you can't throw strikes, you can't pitch. At the major league level, if you can't throw the right kind of strikes, you won't last past the fourth inning. Nobody threw more of the right kind of strikes than Maddux.

This brings up a corollary to Maddux's ability. A pitcher has to know what the right kind of strikes are, because that varies from hitter to hitter and from pitch to pitch with each hitter. Maddux's career was also a tribute to my prime belief about pitching-the most important muscle in a pitcher's body is the one between his ears.

Yes, I know these are baseball fundamentals every fan learns as a kid. That's my point. Fundamentals are HARD. They are the essential mysteries of their sports, the grails jocks spend a lifetime seeking. Blocking and tackling. Skating fast. Put the ball in the fairway off the tee. Easy to write. Doing them, not so much. Fundamentals seem boring because they can't be argued about in bars or on the radio. But they're what matters. They're all that matters, really. Final scores are merely a reflection of who came closer to the sport's essentials more often on that particular occasion. The rest, and God knows I wrote about the rest as much or more than anyone, is just filigree.

No pitcher ever spent more time expressing the fundamentals of his trade than Greg Maddux. It is my intention to live long enough to cast my vote (like he'll need it) to help make him an almost-unanimous (some ass will maintain that inane tradition) first ballot Hall of Famer. Maddux didn't only excel. He did so in a meaningful way.

Besides, I owe him. We did make that flight.


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