Greg Maddux in . . . the Nagging QuestionDecember 9, 2008
I’m tempted to go with Tom Seaver, because I marveled at his feats as a kid and count a game I saw him pitch at Fenway in his last season among the most memorable games I’ve ever attended.
I was 18 that year, 1986, and I am pretty sure I went to the game alone, the only time I’ve ever done that. I must have taken a bus in from my grandfather’s house on the Cape, where I was spending the summer pumping gas. I could look up the game on retrosheet, but I prefer to just rely on my memory, which has me in the centerfield bleachers and Seaver on the mound in a duel with a young flamethrower named Mark Langston, a guy who is not exactly a household name now but who at that time, because the pitches springing from his left hand were as fearsome as a snapped and writhing power line, seemed to be at the beginning of a splendid career, dawn to Seaver’s dusk.
While the whip-thin youngster racked up the strikeouts, the stocky old-timer craftily navigated through occasional jams, never allowing his calm claim on the game to be disturbed. My strongest memory from the game has to do with this last thing, his calmness. I remember getting the sense, even from the centerfield bleachers, that as Seaver stood on the mound looking in for the sign and drawing in a slow breath he was as calm as the Buddha, aware of and at peace with the fact that he was the center of the game, the center of the world. The game finally swung his way late, when Langston came undone. As I recall it, an error played a part in the go-ahead rally, just enough of a tremor to push Langston off his center, something that did not happen to Seaver that day. I couldn’t imagine it happening to Seaver any day.
The young ace of the Red Sox staff that year, on the other hand, as great as he was, proved in the coming years capable of coming undone from time to time. Still, I think many people around my age would have, up until some fairly recent events, argued that Roger Clemens was the best pitcher of their lifetime. His reputation has taken a hit of late because of revelations about his use of performance-enhancing drugs, and I guess the general belief is that his career numbers, especially those compiled late in his career, should be downgraded with the caveat that he may have gained an unfair competitive advantage by going on the juice. Even before all that came to light, I don’t think I would have been able to embrace Clemens as a choice for the best pitcher of my lifetime, because, fairly or unfairly, I see him in my memory allowing the occasional big moment to overwhelm him, to turn him into an unfocused raging bull falling off his axis at the center of the game.
His successor as ace of the Red Sox, Pedro Martinez, fares better in my memory. My first memory of him is always the performance he turned in against the Indians in the playoffs in 1999. Unable because of arm trouble to throw fastballs, Pedro nonetheless pitched several innings of no-hit relief by masterfully baffling the Cleveland hitters with an assortment of off-speed junk. Even stripped of his most fearsome weapon, the mound was his. For that, and for all the games I watched him pitch when he did have his full arsenal, I would say that no one in my lifetime has reached the level of dominance that Pedro performed at during his prime.
However, while Pedro was dominating the American League throughout the steroid era, another master was putting up similarly jaw-dropping numbers while dominating the National League. And he had been pitching at a high level for several years before Pedro ever reached the major leagues, and in the last few seasons, while Pedro has struggled mightily to stay off the disabled list, this pitcher who predated him has continued to log big innings and win his share of games.
I never got to see much of this latter pitcher, Greg Maddux, in his prime, but he did return to his first team, the Cubs, the same year I moved to Chicago, so I got to watch him a few times in his sunset years. Some games went well, some not so well, but either way he always remained unflappably poised, like that 1986 version of Seaver. He also had a springy looseness all his own that I found inexplicably enjoyable to watch. In fact my most vivid memory of Maddux in his second go-round with the Cubs is the way he covered first base on a grounder. To be more specific, I see him just after he has expertly executed the play to end the inning, flipping the ball straight from his glove to the first base ump with an almost playful nonchalance. It’s often been said of Maddux, because of his stocky frame and nondescript features, that he looks more like an orthodontist or an accountant than an elite athlete. But I think you would only need to have watched him moving around his workplace for a couple minutes to see that Maddux, who yesterday announced his retirement, was as much at home on a baseball diamond as Seaver or Clemens or Pedro or anyone else who has ever lived.