Greg Maddux: The Professor on the Mound

By Robert Grayson

So how does a mild-mannered, laid-back, soft-spoken guy like Greg Maddux get the nickname “Mad Dog?” Well, once he picked up a baseball and trotted out to the mound, he went through a transformation. He became such a fierce competitor there was no other way to describe him.

The metamorphosis was simple to explain: Maddux hated, really hated, to lose.
Off the hill, a relaxed Maddux calmly reflects on games and pitching performances. It’s quite a contrast, especially for hitters in the National League who spent the better part of their careers trying to figure out the crafty right-hander. He didn’t blow anyone away with a 100-mile-per-hour heater. He didn’t have that one terrifying pitch. Instead, Maddux was all about control, putting the ball exactly where he wanted it, pitch after pitch, season after season. With 355 wins over 23 major league seasons, Maddux retired in 2008 and now has a plaque in Baseball’s Hall of Fame.

MadduxRatedRookieMaddux comes from a family of pitchers. His older brother, Mike, pitched in the majors from 1986-2000, but with not nearly the success of his brother. Mike is now the pitching coach for the Texas Rangers. Although Mike was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1982, and Greg was signed by the Chicago Cubs in 1984, they both came up to the big leagues in 1986. Mike was drafted out of the University of Texas at El Paso. Greg was selected by the Cubbies right after graduating from Valley High School in Las Vegas.

The two brothers pitched against each other on Sept. 29, 1986, at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. It was the first time two brothers who were rookies took to the mound to start a game against each other. Greg and the Cubs won 8–3.

At 18 years old, Greg Maddux started playing pro ball at the rookie-level Pikeville Cubs in the Appalachian League in 1984. He compiled a 6-2 record with a 2.63 ERA. But at such a young age, there was a learning curve for the fresh-faced teenager.

“For me that (the minor leagues) is where you start to grow up a little bit. I didn’t go to college – I signed out of high school – and that first year was the first time I had ever been away from home, so I had to grow up fast,” he said. “Once you get past that, you start trying to get better and you learn as much as you can from all your coaches, your teammates, even the opposing team.”

Part of the hurler’s education as a pitcher came from watching opposing hitters, “spotting weaknesses and exploiting them,” the new Hall of Famer recalls.

Maddux spent the 1985 season at Single-A Peoria, where he won 13 games and found himself on the fast track to the majors. While the right-hander started the 1986 season at Double-A Pittsfield in the Eastern League, he was promoted after only eight starts to the Triple-A Iowa Cubs of the American Association. There he went 10–1 and earned a September call-up with the major league club. Maddux remembers what it was like the first time he went to the Friendly Confines.

“My first day was pretty cool. I walked down the steps at Wrigley Field to get to the clubhouse and my locker was right next to Rick Sutcliffe’s. Growing up as a kid, I had watched him. The starting pitchers for that day were Jamie Moyer and Nolan Ryan. So you had both ends of the spectrum right there. You had a guy who probably threw the hardest in the league against the guy who threw the softest in the league. It was a pretty special day for me.”

The first time Maddux appeared in a major league game came right after his call-up – but he was on the base paths, rather than the mound. The young moundsman was sent in to pinch-run for catcher Jody Davis in the 17th inning of a tied game against the Houston Astros on Sept. 3, 1986. He then pitched the 18th inning, giving up the winning home run to Billy Hatcher.

There’s an asterisk here: The game actually started on Sept. 2, but was suspended in the 15th inning because of darkness – there were no lights at Wrigley in those days. The game was completed on Sept. 3. Four days later, on Sept. 7, Maddux started and won his first game. He beat Cincinnati 11-3, hurling a complete game. While Maddux went 2–4 with the Chicago Cubs at the end of the 1986 season, the team’s brain trust liked what they saw from him and planned on making him part of the Cubbies’ rotation in 1987.

The right-hander learned a lot in that first month in the major leagues at the end of theMaddux87 1986 season. He realized that a pitcher needs superior concentration in the big leagues and can’t make mistakes.

“In the minors, a pitcher can throw the wrong pitch to a hitter and still get him out. In the majors, that would be a hit,” he points out.

As part of the Chicago Cubs’ rotation in 1987, things started off well for Maddux. But as the season progressed, hitters began to figure him out. In addition, he started to lose his cool on the mound, unraveling after throwing a bad pitch and letting the game get away from him. He lost confidence, and by August he had a 6-10 record with a 4.91 ERA.

The Cubs decided to send him back to Triple-A Iowa, where pitching coach Dick Pole, who had helped propel him to a 10-1 record in 1986, took him under his wing again. Pole helped Maddux make several adjustments in his mechanics. Within several weeks, the young hurler was winning again on the Triple-A level and headed back to the majors.

But Mad Dog’s struggles continued to dog him on the major league level, and at the end of the 1987 season, the Cubs sent Maddux to play winter ball in the Venezuelan Winter League, hoping he would find a solution to his recurring difficulties. Pole went along with the young pitching prospect. Out of the spotlight of the major leagues, Pole worked tirelessly to develop the pitcher who would soon dominate big league batters.

Maddux was more than a willing student. He didn’t like big league hitters knocking him around. He and Pole worked on mechanics, pitch location and pitch selection. Pole taught Maddux a cut fastball and refined the youngster’s changeup. The coach also taught Maddux how to pitch successfully inside – not just to move hitters off the plate, but to get them out.

Pole emphasized that Maddux had to pitch with a plan. The result of all their hard work together was the righty’s simple, easy pitching motion and his ability to locate pitches right where he wanted them. That translated into a lot of groundouts; lazy, easy-to-catch fly balls; and a pitching style that would serve him well for more than 20 years in the major leagues.

In 1988, Maddux went 18-8 for a Cubs team that won only 77 games and finished fourth in the National League East. It was the start of a major league-record 17 straight seasons in which the hurler won 15 or more games (1988-2004). In 1989, the Cubs won the National League Eastern Division behind 19 wins by Greg Maddux. But the Cubbies lost the National League Championship Series to the San Francisco Giants in five games. Maddux lost Game 1 of the series and got a no-decision in Game 4.

The 6-foot righty bounced back from the disappointing 1989 postseason. Maddux won 15 games in the 1990 season and again in the 1991 season, but the Cubs could manage no better than a fourth-place finish in the National League East in both those years.

His 20-win season in 1992 gave Maddux his first of four consecutive National League Cy Young Awards. But he would not earn the remaining three of those awards as a member of Chicago’s National League franchise.

At the end of the 1992 season, Maddux was a free agent with the goal of winning the World Series. The Chicago Cubs didn’t seem to be going in that direction. The Atlanta Braves, on the other hand, had won the National League pennant in both 1991 and 1992 and had fallen just a bit short of winning the World Series both those years.

The Braves were loaded with talent. With players like Chipper Jones, Ryan Klesko, Javy Lopez, Terry Pendleton, Dave Justice and a pitching staff that already boasted Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery, Maddux figured the Braves were a can’t-miss contender for years to come.

But Atlanta was not his only suitor. The New York Yankees showed a strong interest in adding Maddux to their roster. In fact, the future Hall of Famer even went to New York and met with then-Yankee General Manager Gene Michael. Maddux came extremely close to wearing pinstripes.

“I wanted to stay in the National League. I also wanted a World Series ring,” Maddux revealed.

While he had met with the Braves, as well as the Yankees, it didn’t look as if the Braves were going to make him an offer. “Plan B was to go to New York,” the right-hander notes. But then the Braves came through with an offer, and while it was rumored to be less than the Yankees were willing to pay him, Maddux headed south.

“Free agency is about where you want to play. I really wanted to stay in the National League. At the time I thought Atlanta was a better team than the Yankees – ready to win right away. Of course, if I had a crystal ball, I guess I would have gone to New York and ended up with three or four World Series rings,” he says. But he has no regrets, having seen plenty of postseason action with the Braves and “playing with a great team, great players and one of the best pitching staffs ever.”

As a testament to that, Braves pitcher Tom Glavine and team manager Bobby Cox were also inducted into the Hall of Fame this year. John Smoltz is likely to go in next year.

“Bobby (Cox) taught me a lot about the game. It is an honor going into the Hall of Fame with him. I knew I had a chance of going in with Tom. As soon as I knew it was possible that Bobby could go in as well, I really got excited,” the hurler said. “I played for Joe Torre in Los Angeles at the end of my career and I played against Tony La Russa for 15
or 20 years. It’s just humbling going into the Hall of Fame with these guys.”

In 11 seasons with the Braves (1993-2003), Maddux won 194 games, in addition to three Cy Young Awards (1993-95) and four ERA titles (1993-1995, 1998). During his tenure with the Braves, the team won the World Series in 1995 – defeating the Cleveland Indians in six games – and captured three National League pennants (1995, 1996, 1999). In addition, Maddux and the Braves won the National League East 10 times. Maddux pitched a two-hitter in Game 1 of the 1995 World Series, winning 3-2, but narrowly lost Game 5 by a 5-4 score.

Maddux considers 1995 his best season “because we won the World Series. The individual stuff is cool and everything, but it’s hard for me to put another year over the year we won the World Series. When you are the last team standing and you have that ring, it’s really hard to beat that.”

During the Maddux/Glavine/Smoltz era, it was not uncommon to see the Braves’ pitching staff sitting in the dugout exchanging ideas about how to go after hitters.

Maddux was blessed with an excellent memory. He could recall how he got hitters out in the past, knew their weaknesses well and fed off those shortcomings. He was skilled in outthinking the batter and was credited with being “very cerebral” on the mound. His knowledgeable, thoughtful approach to the game even earned him a second nickname: “The Professor.” Maddux shrugs it off.

“Good location makes you look smart. Good control makes you look like a genius. Getting the pitch where you want makes you smart all the time. Pitch down in the strike zone, again, you look smart. That’s what it is,” the eight-time All-Star said, adding, “I had the best fielders in baseball behind me.”

Still, when Maddux was in the dugout talking about pitching, everyone gathered around him and was transfixed by what he was saying. And why not? The 355-game winner did something on the mound few hurlers could do: He was successful in making his array of pitches – changeups, sliders, two and four-seam fastballs – look the same. “They all had a late, quick break,” he said of his pitches, which made it harder for the hitter to identify what was coming and even less time to react.

The four-time Cy Young Award winner had other secrets, as well. He paid attention to the game, even when he wasn’t pitching.

“Trust your eyes and what you see. Hopefully you pick up something you can use when it’s your turn to pitch,” he advised.

Maddux became a free agent after the 2003 season and the Braves decided not to sign him to a long-term contract. So the former Cub decided to return to his roots and signed on for another stint at Wrigley Field. He reached several milestones during his second tour of duty with the Cubs.

On Aug. 7, 2004, the seasoned right-hander defeated the San Francisco Giants 8-4 to notch his 300th career victory. Almost a year later, on July 26, 2005, he picked up his 3,000th career strikeout. He became only the ninth pitcher to have 300 wins and 3,000 strikeouts.

“I think staying healthy is a big part of it,” Maddux says of his success in the major leagues. “You can’t win if you don’t pitch.” Maddux was only on the disabled list one time in his 23-year career. That was for 15 days early in the 2002 season.

There is a statistic that Maddux is quite proud of, even though it’s not mentioned as frequently as his wins and strikeouts. The feared hurler has 18 Gold Gloves to his credit for his outstanding defensive prowess. He worked hard on his fielding because it was another way to get batters out, he says.

Maddux stayed with the Cubs through the end of July 2006, when he was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers needed an experienced pitcher to get them to the playoffs that year. On Sept. 30, 2006, Maddux defeated the San Francisco Giants 4–2 to clinch the National League Wild Card for the Dodgers. But L.A. was swept in the first round of the playoffs by the National League East Champion New York Mets.

With his career winding down, Maddux signed with the San Diego Padres in 2007. He stayed with the team until Aug. 19, 2008, when the Dodgers traded for him, again for another stretch run. The 2008 Dodgers, with Joe Torre as manager, won the National League West. Los Angeles swept the Chicago Cubs in the National League Division Series, but lost the National League Championship Series in five games to the Philadelphia Phillies. Following the 2008 postseason, Maddux announced his retirement.

Fans will not see a team logo on the cap Greg Maddux is shown wearing on his Hall of Fame plaque. He had a hard time choosing between an Atlanta Braves and a Chicago Cubs logo, and really didn’t want to in the end.

“It’s impossible for me to choose one of those teams for my Hall of Fame plaque, as the fans of both clubs in each of those cities were so wonderful,” Maddux said. “I can’t think of having my Hall of Fame plaque induction without the support of both of those fan bases, so, for that reason, the cap on my Hall of fame plaque will not feature a logo.”

After 23 years in the bigs, the Hall of Famer sums up his advice to young hurlers by telling them that they can stay in the game a long time if they take care of themselves and keep improving as they go along. He adds, “Never be content with your last game and remember you are only as good as your next game.”

Robert Grayson is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at graydrew18@aol.com.

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