Chipper Jones is my favorite Brave of all time. End of story. I wore the socks high in little league. I played third base until my weak arm moved me to second base. I couldn’t switch hit, but I imitated his left-handed stance and swing as best I could. (So, uh, not well.)
John Smoltz was the Braves pitcher who elicited the most emotion from me. It makes sense that the member of the Cy Young Trio with the most explosive stuff — let alone the guy who dominated the playoffs and took on the high-pressure role of closer — would be the most exciting. Smoltz’s two inning closing effort in a huge win against the Astros in Game 4 of the 2004 NLDS – a series the Braves would ultimately lose – and his subsequent huge celebration upon closing out that game will always be a favorite memory of mine. (Sadly, I was too young to appreciate Smoltz’s brilliance in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series.) Smoltz was there for all 14.
Tom Glavine, the 300 game winner who is the Atlanta Braves’ lone World Series MVP and a two time Cy Young winner, doesn’t get the respect he deserves, which is insane both because he should and because the only reason he doesn’t is due to the brilliance that surrounded him. He was a star in a constellation. But Glavine wasn’t as exciting as Smoltz, and he wasn’t as brilliant as the subject of this column. Tom Glavine was simply a smart, incredible, hard-working pitcher (hard-working as in he overcame every sabermetric stat that claimed he should have been mediocre; it’s actually incredible). I never appreciated Glavine as much as I should have. I think a lot of people didn’t and still don’t. If it’s any consolation to Glavine, I endlessly appreciate him when he’s in the booth for Braves games now. It seems like color commentary is a hobby for him, and he’s better at it than 99% of the pros out there. It’s a testament to how intelligent of a baseball player Tom Glavine was.
Chipper was my favorite. Smoltz was exciting. Glavine was the ace lost in a deck of face cards. Greg Maddux, however, is quite simply the reason I love baseball. Maddux, in a broader way than Glavine, doesn’t get the respect he deserves. Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez, and Randy Johnson were all sexier pitching names during Maddux’s career. It’s no coincidence they all also threw heat coupled exploding breaking balls. It was easy to see why they were brilliant. They were fun to watch in part because they were easy to watch. But as much as I said I loved Smoltz’s explosive arsenal, that sort of pitching didn’t appeal to me like Maddux’s game did. What Maddux did was inexplicable. It left you wanting more if only because you desperately wanted to figure it out and to put your finger on what exactly was happening. You shook your head and wondered how he was doing what he was doing. Half the time you didn’t even realize he was doing what he was doing until it was done (a mere 86 pitchers later) and you took a look at the box score that didn’t possibly seem real and said, “Holy shit, that happened.”
There was no anticipation before a Maddux pitch. No “Here it comes.” It just came, and it resulted in bad contact and a boring ground ball. You want an example of the “You didn’t realize he was doing what he was doing until it was done”? The guy who will never be on a strikeout highlight reel has 3,000 strikeouts.
Greg Maddux — like Lionel Messi, Michael Jordan, and Peyton Manning – left you in search of answers. “How the hell did he do that?” was always the relevant question with Maddux. The difference, I guess, is that if you were asking that question about Jordan, Messi, or Manning, it would be in the same way you would ask that question after Evil Knieval made an impossible jump over school busses filled with explosive sharks, or whatever. For Maddux, you would ask the same question, but in the way you would mutter it to yourself while watching Danny Ocean slyly rip someone off. Maddux was a master thief. He stole at bats from hitters before they even realized they were being robbed. He conned everyone. It was baffling and impressive to watch.
There was, and probably never will be again, anyone like Maddux. There will be another Clemens. There will be another Pedro and another Nolan Ryan. Those pitchers were excellent, to be sure, but not totally unique. Maddux was something else entirely, and what’s most impressive of all is that he wasn’t some fluke. Maddux wasn’t a pitcher that had people saying, “Well, that works for him, but…”. Maddux was simply a different kind of incredible. For whatever reason, watching that is what endeared the game to me more than anything else. Most kids get wrapped up in home runs, strikeouts, and web gems; the big plays. Maddux had me invested in what was important in that moment. His pitching taught me the game and, more importantly, how to realistically win it. He dominated without any concern for dominance. Everything Maddux did seemed so obvious, yet no one could stop it, or replicate it. The simplest ideas tend to be the most brilliant. If you were to describe Maddux’s game, simple would be an apt adjective. So would brilliant. This video says it all:
America loves a winner, but more than that we love a flashy winner. It’s why Kobe Bryant is a thousand times more famous than Tim Duncan (you can’t blame San Antonio either, LeBron got famous in Cleveland). We value hard work and all that crap, but that’s definitely not what we want to watch. Maddux was a winner – a 355 game winner to be exact — but he was a practical winner. This isn’t to celebrate some selfless demeanor Maddux might have maybe had (he doesn’t quite seem the type for that), it’s just that his game didn’t have a lot of curb appeal. It was nuanced and subtle in an age of LONG BALLS. Chicks (and everyone else) should have dug Maddux, but whatever.
So here’s to the player most people never got the chance to truly understand or appreciate. His greatness was never up for debate, but how exactly he was great was never fully appreciated either, and because of that, not properly celebrated. I’m thankful that I got to watch Greg Maddux’s career, and I’m thankful I was aware of what I was watching. It was once in a lifetime stuff. I still shake my head thinking about Maddux. “How? Wow.” His numbers are historic, but not the best ever. That’s not the point though. It’s about how Maddux got those numbers. Greg Maddux is the reason I love baseball, but I doubt I’ll ever see anyone play baseball like Greg Maddux ever again.
Congrats on your Hall of Fame induction Greg Maddux.
And you too Tom Glavine. Seriously? I’m a part of the problem I laid out in my own damn article.
Also you, Bobby Cox.
Jeez. Go Braves.