When I swam the Atlantic in the mid-1980s, I knew absolutely diddly about American sports. Basketball? Buncha tall guys throwing the ball into a net thingy, like the “netball” which girls played back home. Football? Large men running into each other with little to show for it, and when not doing that, forward passes (illegal in the game of rugby) and matches which featured short bursts of action between long commercial breaks. Baseball? Sorta like “rounders” (another girly game).
Then I got invited to my first baseball game. The Chicago Cubs were playing at Wrigley Field, against some other team (don’t remember which one), and the “starting” pitcher was a guy named Greg Maddux.
Remember, I knew diddly about the game of baseball: how it’s played, the terminology, the strategy, and what constituted a “good” player. When it came to that last, though, I learned that really quickly, because watching Maddux pitch was like watching a skilled surgeon performing a routine operation. I’d never seen anything like it before, and I’m not sure I’ll ever see it again. Only other players in different sports come to mind: Shane Warne (cricket), Michael Jordan (duh) and Lionel Messi (soccer/football) ever came close — and in the case of Jordan, it opened up basketball for me, but only as long as he was playing.
Back to Maddux and that game. I had a good seat behind home plate, and was blessed by having my boss — a serious baseball fan — sitting next to me, who could explain the game to me. I didn’t need any tutoring when Maddux was on the mound, because greatness doesn’t need much explanation. I didn’t know a curve ball from a slider from a two-seam fastball; all I saw was batters swinging the bats like little kids, and seldom hitting any pitch Maddux threw. As I recall, he pitched seven innings, allowed zero runs and only had a couple of on-base hits scored on him. Cubs win. Cubs win. Cubs win.
Of course, at that time the Cubs as a team sucked bigly because the loathsome Tribune Corporation (the owners) didn’t need the team to win, only to make a decent game of it. They didn’t spend money on great players because the fans loved the guys they did have — admittedly, some very good ones like Ryne Sandberg, Mark Grace and Andre Dawson — but other than Maddux, their pitching sucked and nobody could hit the ball or even field the ball other than the aforementioned three players.
Of course, when Maddux’s (cheap) contract came to an end, the Tribune Corp. offloaded him like a bad smell, sending him to Atlanta where he amassed feat after feat, in the end winning 300 games, striking out over 3,000 batters, for a career ERA of some minuscule number, four Cy Young Awards and a first-round pass into the Hall of Fame.
I know all this about him because I wasn’t a Cubs fan but a Maddux fan — so when he was traded I quit watching the Cubs forever.
Anyway, this is not a post intended to promote a discussion of how other pitchers were “better” than Greg Maddux — I can hear the Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton supporters warming the engines as we speak — but an appreciation of the man himself.
When his Cubs contract ended, Maddux turned down the Yankees and went to the Braves for less money — because he thought Atlanta would be a better place to raise his kids than New York.
And who could argue with that?
Here’s a YooChoob video which does a better job than I have (unsurprisingly).