Sunday, August 08, 2004

Greg Maddux reaches 300

M Scott Eiland at Tacitus celebrates Greg Maddux' 300th win, "making him the 22nd major league pitcher since 1876 to attain that lofty milestone." Scott's pens a fitting tribute to Maddux' career:

Maddux was never one of those pitchers who blew hitters away with overwhelming stuff (his fastball was, at its best, about a "B+"--with Roger Clemens getting an "A" and Nolan Ryan an "A+"), or by intimidating batters. Maddux is an utterly unimposing figure when out of uniform, and has been nicknamed "Clark Kent" by teammates who saw him wearing glasses off the mound and made the obvious contrast with the "Superman" who was dominating the National League during the majority of the 1990's. He frustrated batters with guile and pinpoint control and sheer efficiency: in this age of three and a half hour games, it was not uncommon for Maddux to finish a start in less than two hours--the people in charge of concessions must have hated him. He simply went out to the mound every fifth game and--with remarkable consistency--won fifteen to twenty games a season for year after year. He is not the greatest starting pitcher of his era--that honor goes to Roger Clemens--and a couple of other pitchers--Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez--have reached greater heights at the best moments of their careers. However, no pitcher of the last quarter century has ever been a greater *artist* on the pitching mound. A start by Greg Maddux in his best years was a work of art, like a great symphony or a portrait by an old master--something that lingers on in the memory long after the other memories of the time have faded. It will be a while before we see his like again in a major league uniform.

Greg Maddux reminds us of all the ingredients it takes to be a truly great athlete. Not only is he the artist of his generation on the mound, he also has a remarkable string of gold gloves. And it's his unassuming appearance (hell, he's physically unassuming on the mound, not only in civies with glasses) that highlights what it takes to be great. We're not seduced by one dominant physical gift, such as strength or speed or endurance.

Incredible coordination from tips of the fingers throughout the body, especially great balance and footwork. Fabulous reflexes that don't require the conscious mind to be engaged, but also the ability for thought to translate directly into precise physical execution. Not a johnny-one-note -- can adjust physical technique effortlessly through a range of gears and, when needed, tap into that extra reservoir of strength or speed or control. Ability to focus on the physical task at hand, apparently cutting off all extraneous input, while still having a heightened situational awareness. Sustained concentration, for hours if needed. An uncanny ability to "outthink" the opponent, which is not only to be able to anticipate what the other is likely to do but also to know and exploit the opponent's psychic vulnerabilies, not just physical weaknesses. And sheer willpower. Altogether a package of special gifts shared by the greats, whether Mays or Bonds, Dr J or Jordan, Merkx or Armstrong, Laver or Sampras, Staubach or Montana, or Jack or Tiger.

The "300 club" is not only well earned. It means Maddux will be appreciated through the ages as the epitome of that rare beast, a complete pitcher. Without that milestone, his greatness would be lost over time, because his pitching didn't have a dominating physical feature that would have been passed down in tales of derring do to become part of baseball's mythology. I can't begin to count the number of summer evenings I have relished a performance by Maddux. I caught him the other day as he continued to baffle batters with changes of speed between 81 and 89 mph within the outer limits of the strike zone. I know everything must come to an end, but I sure wish I could still watch the Braves old bullpen!

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