Saturday, December 6, 2008
The Mad Dog Retires: Beyond The Numbers
Has there ever been a more contradictory nickname for a great player than "Mad Dog"? He was anything but mad on the mound, and he wasn't canine in his appeal. Randy Johnson, yes. John Rocker, Maddux's former teammate? Sure. I'd even bestow that nickname upon Kevin Brown. But Maddux? Fuhgetahboutit.
That nickname in its essence is what makes Maddux so special. He thrived and overpowered hitters in an era of thumpers and velocity throwers. He is like the Haile Sellasse of baseball: overwhelming not through brute force (Napoleon) or physical presence (Maxinimus Thrax) but through intellect, discipline and that inexplicable intangible. You hear and see all the time the pitchers who have successful careers despite physical limitations and lack of velocity. In fact, there's one pitcher on every roster who fits this mold. Maddux didn't just have success; he had unprecedented fluorescence. Like Charles Barkley and his success at his position with his size, you can't explain how this guy was able to do the things he did on the field.
I grew up a diehard Braves fan. When Maddux arrived in Atlanta in 1993, I barely knew much about the guy. Of course I was eight years old at the time but he had spent his playing days prior in the Midwest and neither the internet nor instant informational access was as ubiquitous to a little kid at the time. I also had issues of my own then: my parents got a divorce and my grandfather died that year. I, like many children, used sports as an escape of sorts. The Braves became my haven. Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz formed the best three-man rotation in baseball history (I will not argue about this). They would wreck havoc on the opposing lineups with untethered reign. Everybody knew why Smoltz was dominant: a sickening splitter and an overpowering heater. Glavine lowered batting averages because of an unhittable changeup and superb stubbornness (he never yielded that outside corner). Both pitchers could, in their prime mix in an offspeed with a 92 mph smoker.
What was Maddux's alibi? His fastball clocked in a 89. His pitch location was unteachable (don't care what the Tom Emanskis of the world say, you cannot teach his location skills). His pitches were more moving than a Nicholas Sparks novel. He didn't just induce ground-balls and fly outs. He earned them the hard way as well, ranking 10th on the all-time strikeout list with 3,371. He perfected the efficiency model. It was a running joke among me and my buddies growing up that if Maddux was starting, then you only had to allot two hours of game time. If there was anything that needed to be done, get it done before the game because a quick store run could cost you seven innings. It was great and to me, unfathomable.
It is said that we are always attracted to the things that we don't understand, and figuring out Maddux is something I have yet to do. It is something that I don't think I will do. It is something I don't think I want to do.
Which is why his legacy will never be lost on me.