Saturday, December 06, 2008

Goodnight, Professor
Unlike a lot of baseball fans, I didn't really get my love of the game from my parents: my dad took me to my first game in 1980, but if I've seen more than one or two with him since then, that would be a lot. My mom is a bit more of a fan, but perhaps more in the last few years than when I was a kid. If anything, my grandparents, particularly my late grandmother, had more to do with my early appreciation of baseball, as well as my uncle. But it was really just being a kid in the late '70s and early '80s, when the Phillies ruled the town and were perennial contenders, that made a me a fan. And as I don't have any kids of my own for the time being, and well might not ever, it isn't easy for me to envision that iconic moment of intergenerational baseball talk from either side--when the grownup tells the child about having seen this or that long-retired or deceased star in action, mythologizing what he did between the chalk lines.

If I ever have that experience from the perspective of the older participant, though, the three all-time greats I imagine I'd talk about are Tony Gwynn, Barry Bonds, and Greg Maddux--who will officially announce his retirement on Monday, calling an end to arguably the greatest career in baseball's current era.

Gwynn's singular talent was exemplified in his almost limitless ability to dunk the outside pitch over the shortstop's head for a single to left. Bonds had the finest batting eye I've ever seen--I imagine watching Ted Williams once upon a time was similar--and of course the mammoth power. But Maddux might have been my favorite of the three: physically unremarkable in appearance, not blessed with an overpowering fastball or known for an outsized personality off the field, he won--and won, and won--with sublime smarts and bottomless competitive appetite. Simply put, he could place the ball wherever he wanted, whenever he wanted.

Maddux was at his best during the 1990s, a decade of outsized offense in baseball that we now know was stained by the widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs (a fact that specifically tarnishes the legacies of both Bonds and Roger Clemens, the one pitcher in the modern era whose accomplishments rival those of Maddux). He won at least 15 games every year between 1988 and 2004, a stretch of 17 seasons. Between 1992 and 2000, he put up a cumulative record of 165-71, and only once posted an ERA above 3 in that stretch. And he never got hurt: between 1988 and 2001, he threw over 200 innings every single year, missing the mark by two-thirds of an inning in 2002 before reeling off another four seasons of 200-plus. He was a complete player, winning a record 18 Gold Gloves, including one this past season at age 42, for his defense. Some argue that Maddux's four-year stretch between 1992 and 1995--in which he went an unfathomable 75-29 with a combined ERA of 1.98--is the greatest "peak" of any pitcher in baseball history, at least compared to league averages during that time.

My clearest single memory of Maddux actually wasn't his work on the field, but his appearance before the media after shutting out the Yankees, 4-0, pitching for the Braves in Game Two of the 1996 World Series. I was working for NBC Sports at the time, but we didn't have the broadcast rights to the Series that year--I just happened to get a ticket, and used my press credential to get into the postgame press conference. Sitting there in his glasses, speaking so quietly one had to strain to hear him, Maddux talked about his performance that night--six hits, no walks, two strikeouts in eight shutout innings--as a memory he would take to the grave. He didn't come across as maudlin or hyperbolic, but it was clear that he appreciated the moment and that he had written, was continuing to write, a chapter in the history of the game. As it happened, Maddux was back on the Yankee Stadium mound five days later, and was the losing pitcher to Jimmy Key (7 2/3 innings, 3 runs, all scored in the bottom of the 3rd) as the Yankees took their first championship in 18 years. I had the good fortune to be at that game too, though not the postgame media events afterward; I imagine Maddux faced the press with the exact same demeanor. And of course he went out the next year and continued his quiet, inexorable dominance.

As it happens, the last appearance of Maddux's career came against the Phillies in the decisive Game Five of this year's National League Championship Series. He came in with his team behind 3-0 to pitch the top of the fourth: flyout, strikeout looking, strikeout looking. An inning later, he allowed two runs, both unearned, as his shortstop and former Atlanta teammate Rafael Furcal made two critical errors in the span of four batters, each to allow a run. Down 5-0 after the second error, with the bases loaded and the Dodgers' hopes for a comeback down to a prayer, he retired Cole Hamels on a groundout to avoid further damage.

EIghth on the all-time wins list with 355, Maddux will proceed directly into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. The only question is how much of a share of the vote he'll receive from the always-flaky Baseball Writers of America Association. (Note: I will take any opportunity to link to their hilariously ugly website, last redesigned I think around when Maddux faced the Yanks in the '96 Series.) He should become the first player to go in unanimously; I'm sure he won't, because some goon or other among the miserable community of sportswriters who comprise the BBWAA membership will absurdly assert the principle that "if Babe Ruth wasn't a unanimous pick, nobody ever should be." I can, however, pledge that if I'm still around and still blogging, I will mock that person or persons relentlessly.


Feral said...

Agreed on all counts. Although obviously biased, I would also include the ’98 Yankees as a yarn-worthy example of how a team didn’t need superstars or a ‘big bopper’ to totally annihilate the competition, with persistent efficiency and professional play in all positions. Three regular players hit over .300 (I think), nobody hit 30 homeruns, 114-48 in the regular season, lost only two games in the postseason; this was the most dominant team I had seen in my baseball life, before or since. One got the feeling that they belonged in a different league, and were playing exhibition games in the MLB before going back. I will tell stories (to offspring of others, most likely) of seeing them play, and experiencing that great sensation of seeing the Yankees down by 2 runs in the 7th, and knowing that it was essentially a tie game.
Up by 2 runs in the 7th?
Forget about it.

P.S. Cherry on top of Maddux’ excellent career: Best baseball commercial, ever.

David said...

The '98 Yankees were the ultimate example of a weird trend I wrote about on The Good Phight a few weeks ago: teams that won the title without any big home run hitters. The 2008 Phillies were the first NL team to include the league HR leader since the 1980 Phillies; I think Manny did it for the Red Sox in 2004, but he might have been the only AL guy in that stretch.

Now I need to go watch that Maddux commercial again.