Maddux's guile, precision led to Hall of Fame
Winner of 355 games was master at working strike zone without blazing fastball
NEW YORK -- Greg Maddux said he knew it was time to retire from Major League Baseball late in the 2008 season when the speed of his fastball had the same intensity as his changeup.
The right-hander was with the Dodgers for the second time after 10 years with the Braves, seven for the Cubs and a little bit more than a season with the Padres when he knew it was time to go. He was 42.
"You know, I was in L.A. and I was on the mound," Maddux said. "I threw this ball and it was absolutely perfect. It came out of my hand just the way it was supposed to -- down and away, painted the corner. And I took a peek up there at the radar gun and it said 82. I said, 'Whoops, I've lost too much speed.'"
Trevor Hoffman, among the all-time great closers and second behind Mariano Rivera with 601 saves, also said he knew it was time to go when hitters could no longer tell the difference between his fastball and his signature changeup. Hoffman and Maddux were teammates in San Diego in 2007-08.
"Do you need to throw hard enough to win? No. Do you need to throw hard enough to compete? Absolutely," Maddux said. "I just lost too much speed to go out there and compete anymore. My fastball was 82 and my changeup was 81. You'd think your changeup would get slower when that happens."
Maddux is a Hall of Famer now, elected this year along with former Braves starting staff mate Tom Glavine and slugger Frank Thomas, who played 16 of his 19 years on the South Side of Chicago for the White Sox. The announcement, completing the Class of 2014, came Wednesday. And on Thursday, the trio gathered together for the first time during a news conference at the Waldorf Astoria New York on the East Side of midtown Manhattan.
They will be inducted July 27 three hours away in Cooperstown, along with three of the greatest managers of all time -- Bobby Cox, Joe Torre and Tony La Russa -- who were all elected last month by the Expansion Era Committee. Glavine and Maddux, of course, played for Cox in Atlanta.
The boys have now gathered on this six-month journey to upstate New York where there will be enough baseball star power to strain anyone's eyes.
Maddux, like Glavine, did it on finesse and guile, working the plate and the umpires to perfection. Maddux worked 5,008 1/3 innings, started 744 games and completed 109 of them in 23 years. His muscle tone was somewhat flabby as he grew older, but he was durable, a trait also ascribed to Glavine. Maddux's 23-year WHIP -- walks and hits per inning pitched -- was a stingy 1.143, fifth among starters in the turn-of-the-21st-century era.
There was the perception that because of the way they could move the ball around the plate, umpires gave Maddux and Glavine a very wide berth. In the short time since their election, the joke has gone around that because of it, they should receive extra-wide plaques.
Both were asked Thursday whether that perception was an urban legend or based on reality. And if reality-based, how did that evolve?
As expected, both guys, who combined for 660 wins and are eighth and 21st on the all-time wins list, were quite candid.
"No, I think there's some truth to it," said Glavine, who had 305 wins, 244 of them for the Braves. "But that was kind of the nature of the game then. When we came into the game, it was more of an east-and-west strike zone. Certain umpires were considered pitchers' umpires vs. hitters' umpires. There was that kind of dynamic to it."
Glavine recalled that when he came up in 1987, he noticed that he wasn't being given the same respect from umpires as, say, some veteran pitchers.
"I'd complain on the bench that they'd call that pitch for Dwight Gooden, why aren't they calling that pitch for me?" Glavine said.
The answer was obvious: At that point, he was no Gooden. But later on, younger pitchers weren't Maddux or Glavine, either.
"From my standpoint, you knew you had 18 inches to work with. You just had to figure out where those 18 inches were," Glavine said. "Six inches off the plate? You'd take it if you can get it. That was certainly my philosophy, part of the cat-and-mouse game."
"If an umpire was giving the same two or three inches off the plate away, it was pretty consistent he'd give it to both guys," he said. "I think the difference was, Glav would throw 20 pitches there and the other pitchers would throw two or three. So everyone was going, 'He's getting more pitches.' No, he was making the pitches.
"That's the established strike zone for that day. The pitcher who takes advantage of it is probably going to win."
Maddux took advantage of it and won more than anyone else in his era. Of the seven pitchers above him on the all-time wins list, only Warren Spahn, with 363 of them, had his career end as late as 1965. The others pitched in baseball's dead-ball era, when there was no night baseball and teams traveled by train.
What binds them is, like Maddux, they found a way to get the job done until time and nature sapped the ability to do it. And they are all in the Hall of Fame.