How Greg Maddux Made Me Love Baseball

As a child in the ’90s, baseball was king and the era’s best players were superheroes to me. I didn’t get into comic books until I was much older, so I never spent my youth pretending to be Spider-Man or Batman. No, I spent hours in the backyard pretending to be the great players of the MLB. Cal Ripken Jr., Sammy Sosa, and Chipper Jones were some of the many hitters I imagined myself to be when playing wiffle ball in the side lot. But when it came my turn to step onto the mound, I was only ever one pitcher: Greg Maddux.

Despite being born outside Chicago, I grew up a Braves fan, in part because of TBS and my dad who went to high school in Atlanta, but mostly because the Braves were great in the ’90s. It’s pretty easy as a young kid to root for a team that wins the division almost every year and always has a chance of going to the World Series. Plus, with a lot of family from Atlanta, it never felt like bandwagon jumping quite as much as it would’ve if I had cheering for someone like the Yankees. And in the mid-’90s, anything was better than cheering for the Cubs.

Today is a great day for the Braves, with Bobby Cox, Tom Glavine and Maddux going into the Hall, but for me personally, none of those inductions is more special than the Professor getting his rightful spot among baseball’s greats.

I was a small kid, never a power hitter and never a flamethrower. When the time came to play little league, I wasn’t swinging for the fences. I made my mark off of trying to never strike out and knowing the right spot to be on defense, which are fairly odd goals for an 8-year-old. Eventually, as most decent little leaguers do, I found my way onto the mound. As I reached my teenage years, my age began to catch up with my fastball’s miles per hour. I could barely crack 40, so instead of trying to, I developed a changeup and a curve and tried my hardest to put the ball exactly where I wanted to. When playing second base or center field I was Alex Lowe. When I stepped on the mound, I was always Greg Maddux.

My dad hung an old quilt in the garage and I threw pitch after pitch at that strike zone. Once I was able to hit the zone on almost every pitch, I put small “X”s on the corners and tried to hit those for hours. I didn’t have a mound, I was actually throwing uphill, but still, I worked my way through the lineups of the Indians, the Yankees and the Phillies for a full seasons’ worth of games, getting ready to pitch when the actual little league season rolled around. Now obviously I never quite found a way to have the success that Maddux did (I’m writing about sports now as opposed to pitching for the Braves), but for the 11+ years I played baseball, I always looked up to the Mad Dog over anyone else.

Since his retirement, it seems Maddux’s fastball has gotten slower and slower in lore. In twenty years, it’ll probably be said that he couldn’t crack 70 miles per hour. In reality, Maddux came into the league throwing as high as 95. He could crank it up to the mid 90s, he just chose not to in favor of accuracy and out-thinking hitters, which meant he was able to be successful for much longer than most pitchers. In 2008, his whiff rate was only 7.1%. His fastball only averaged 84.3 mph. But he still was able to find success.

He was so good at this that his reputation for throwing strikes in perfect spots proceeded him. And umpires knew all about it. In 2008, his penulitimate season, he had the second highest called strike rating in the bigs with 42.8%. Umpires knew he was going to throw it right where he wanted to, so on any questionable ball close, they assumed it was over the plate. Gammonsdaily put together a nice infographic showing how close most of those pitches were.

strike-zone

If you look at Wins Above Replacement, Maddux ranks fourth all time. He’s behind only Roger Clemens, Cy Young and Walter Johnson. Removing the strike shortened seasons, Maddux made at least 30 starts every year from 1988-2008. He threw more than 200 innings ever year from 1988-2006, spare 2002 where he only threw 199.1 innings. His durability showed the importance of being there and competing, and he found great success for it. He never walked more than 82 batters in any season. In 2001 he went 72 and 1/3 innings without allowing a free pass.

I could go on and on with those numbers. When looking at Maddux’s legacy, you can study the stats and charts all day, but it’s the things off the paper, the memories and special moments, that make him such a big part of baseball history.

One of the most phenomenal performances was when he threw eight shutout innings in the 1996 World Series against a powerful New York Yankees lineup. Not only did he get the win, but he hardly allowed a ball to be hit out of the infield, inducing weak grounder after weak grounder. It was a show of his pitching prowess and his fine fielding on the grandest scale.

In addition to his obvious strengths on the mound, he was celebrated as a top notch fielder. You can see that in the video above as he goggles ground balls and covers first base without a glitch. But, being a National League player, he found a way to contribute to the team in every way possible. He was a top notch bunter and one of the best baserunners, not only among pitchers but of any players of his time. I’ve included one of my all-time favorite baserunning moments for Maddux below.

355 wins, four Cy Youngs, and 18 Gold Gloves are the quantitative ways to measure Maddux’s success. But beyond that, his control and methodical way of attacking the game served as an inspiration to a generation of young baseball players, especially those who didn’t necessarily have the physical tools to be sluggers or fireballers. He provided hope for guys who looked more suited for the mathletes than varsity athletics. And most of all, he gave me a reason to love the game when I was in my most influenceable years.

I love the NBA, partially because I wish I could play. The NFL and NHL can be very enjoyable to watch. But having played over 1,000 games of wiffle ball, playground baseball, little league, travel tournaments, and high school baseball, there’s no sport more special to me than America’s pastime. And I honestly don’t know if I would’ve had the motivation or confidence to pursue it if it wasn’t for watching Maddux pitch every five games.

Congrats to Greg Maddux, it’ll be a long, long time before there’s another pitcher like you.

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A former college athlete in a sport that no one cared about, Alex now spends most of his days being a furiously biased Bulls and Braves fan. When he's not busy with that, he still imagines his 5'7" self making an improbable rise to NBA stardom.