When you imagine what is like to step into a major league batter's box facing a major league pitcher in your dreams, you don't think of Greg Maddux. Your ego imagines a 6-foot-7 towering beast who throws a 96-mph changeup. In his rocket-ordained arm is the representation of the true power of major league baseball.
The ego that resides in every major league hitter is what Maddux uses to grind up into a pile of rookie sawdust, and unfortunately for you, it does not end after your rookie year.
I had the pleasure and pain of facing Maddux for nearly a decade. My Phillies futilely chased his Braves throughout the 1990s and 2000s only to watch them pour champagne year after year. Their pitching staff was simply dominant and there was never even close to an easy day against their staff. Sure, Tom Glavine ate you alive with changeups, Kevin Millwood with his cutting high heat and John Smoltz with his electric arsenal of everything that sizzled. But it was Maddux who stood as the general, 12 steps ahead of hitters, silently and almost while dozing off, carving through you and your lineup like he threw baseballs with a chainsaw.
I witnessed ungodly pitches out of his hand, much like Kevin Costner's character, Crash Davis, explained to an awe-inspired group of Class A players in the movie "Bull Durham." Exploding sliders. But Maddux's stuff did not explode. It disappeared and reappeared in another time zone. He had pitches that looked like they were supposed to do one thing, and they would do another. He could make the ball move contrary to its spin, like some sort of witch doctor.
One of my favorite Maddux pitches was the back-up slider. A slider usually gives itself away by the red dot on the ball that is boring down on you. It looks like the tip of a football when a perfect spiral is coming at you. If physics is honoring its rules, a right-handed pitcher's slider to a right-handed hitter would start on a fastball plane, then take a hard bite down and away from you at the last minute. He had that pitch, but he could also make it go the exact opposite way, where it would drive into your body instead of away, like a circular saw. It would jam you every time, unless you guessed it was coming.
No need to mention the two-strike pitch that started in the on-deck circle near the first-base dugout and then made a right turn near the outside black of the strike zone. Despite the endless complaints of how umpires gave Maddux more inches on the corner, I actually understood why. It was not out of being a fan of Maddux's -- or just favoritism for Cy Young candidates -- it was out of the fact that Maddux was an illusionist who could knock an insect-sized Sangria out of a gnat's hand and he could do it many times in a row while patiently land-grabbing inches off the plate.
After three innings, he had incrementally taken three inches off the plate. His superhuman accuracy was just exploiting the fact that umpires are human and the only way they could interpret what Maddux was actually doing was to be born with a set of hawk or falcon eyes. Last time I checked, no such umpire exists.
Then there was how well Maddux studied every hitter. Usually, there are tried and true ways you can feel like the league is starting to respect you as a hitter. That it is getting around the league that you are now a bona-fide big league batter and that pitchers better have a plan against you or else you will get your share of hits. So maybe you get intentionally walked one day, maybe someone throws a 2-0 changeup, or maybe you sat on a pitch and took someone deep. All statements saying, "I am here, respect me."
But with Maddux that was not my barometer of respect. Mine was when I knew he at least spent more than five seconds on my scouting report. This was evident because one game when I was leading off, I put my head down as I got set up in the box. This was part of my leadoff ritual. This time, when I looked up, the pitch was halfway home. Strike one. He had noticed after many games that when I started off the game, I looked down at the ground so I was giving him a free "strike one" if he could just lay it in there. From that day forth, I had to get in the box with one eye on him. He took me out of my routine for the rest of my at-bats against him from using patterns against you. He found something to exploit. Game. Set. Match.
My numbers weren't even that bad against him. He threw a ton of strikes and I loved to swing, so I made a lot of contact. I mostly grounded out to shortstop or second base, but I hit my share of hard-hit grounders against him. It was not an uncomfortable at-bat like it was facing Randy Johnson.
When you went home after going 0-for-4 against him with four ground outs back to the mound, you didn't feel like you would never hit again from how he embarrassed you with celestial sliders. You just knew you were outsmarted by pinpoint accuracy with a plan that you will not understand until you retire. But as much as he looked like the guy selling you life insurance, he was actually the guy selling life insurance to you for coverage on your pet hamster … and you were buying it.
In all of my years and at-bats against Maddux, I had only two RBIs (one was a sacrifice fly). That is right, just two RBIs. To beat him with a runner in scoring position was unheard of for me, but one time, my father was gravely ill and living day to day in a step-down medical unit near where I grew up in New Jersey. I knew my dad would be uplifted by watching me play against the Braves, so I had a renewed focus.
In one year, my Phillies team had Maddux against the ropes (as much as you can have him against the ropes). I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was going to throw that crazy back-up slider, so I cheated and pulled my hands inside early. Like magic, I hit a missile down the left field line for a double. When I got to second base, I wasn't sure what to do. I don't think I had seen Maddux backup third base before from a hit off of my bat. It was strange. But my dad saw it and was thrilled. That was about the only way I could have a leg up on Maddux. Divine inspiration for a loved one fighting for his life. Without it, I would have broken another bat on a ground ball to third.
So welcome to the Hall of Fame, Greg. May I call you Greg? I thank you (and the rest of the Braves staff you taught) for chewing up the other Cubs outfielders who were ahead of me on the depth chart back in 1997 so that I got my chance to become an every day player.
I also tip my cap because these radar guns have always missed the point with you and the true art of pitching. It is clear it is about movement, location, anticipation and the mental strength to never give in. Velocity is a bonus and only a crutch when not used with wisdom. Enjoy your induction. Feel free to mention me in your speech as your example of how hitters were nothing but sushi on a platter to you. I won't take it personally. And if I did take it personally, there is nothing I could do about it, even with a bat in my hands.