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12/08/08 3:47 PM EST
Maddux's career ends, legend begins
Righty wins 355 games with unparalleled knowledge of baseball
By Tom Singer / MLB.com
LAS VEGAS -- Baseball's Winter Meetings, that annual conclave at which teams singly aim for additions, this time began with a big collective subtraction. Greg Maddux, the biggest winner of his generation and among the most storied pitchers of all the generations, the MENSA of the mound, officially announced his retirement Monday morning at the Bellagio Hotel, the Meetings' headquarters.
So this is where Maddux's career ends, and his legend begins."I'm just here to say thank you to everyone in baseball," Maddux said with typical humility. "From the teams I played for, to my teammates, to the clubbies. "I appreciate everything the game has given me and my family. I hope I've given back, and played the game the way I'd want my teammates to play it." And with that, a career described by his agent, Scott Boras, simply as "a remarkable accomplishment," was over. Maddux had known the day was coming for a long time. "I decided two years ago [to retire], then we decided to play one more year," he said. "We" included the family, which joined Monday's low-key send-off: wife Kathy, kids Chase and Paige, siblings Terry and Mike, parents Dave and Linda. "I knew two months ago. But I didn't want the big dog-and-pony show," said Maddux, characterizing the proverbial farewell tour. "It's hard to walk away. But it's time." He draws the shades on 355 wins, the most by a right-hander since Walter Johnson, who won the last of his 417 in 1927. He leaves with fewer than a thousand walks and more than 3,000 strikeouts, the only 300-game winner among the five men who've ever pitched to that spread. And he leaves a legacy of unrivaled consistency. Maddux kept untangled an increasingly complicated art form. He was an original member of KISS, the Keep It Simple Stupid band, breaking the challenge down to basics. "I try to do two things: locate my fastball and change speeds," he would say, typically with a light shrug. "That's it." He never grew up, retaining that eternal inside little boy baseball requires. He was the Peter Pan of the diamond. Just as Dick Clark fostered that reputation as the world's oldest teen-ager, Maddux was baseball's oldest adolescent, never taking himself too seriously. When he became the first pitcher to win 10-plus for the 20th straight season to break a record held by Cy Young, Maddux reacted with, "I didn't know that. That's cool." He would have the same dismissive reaction to any unprecedented feat, such as when he and Aaron Cook started and starred in the first game to remain scoreless through nine innings in high-altitude Coors Field -- on Sept. 14, in the third-to-last of Maddux's 740 starts, as good a testament as any to his lifelong dependability. The formal good-bye of the 42-year-old right-hander was not unexpected. A month ago, Boras had disclosed his intent to retire, time and place to be determined. Thus baseball made a pilgrimage to Maddux's hometown to bid him farewell. The time, the place and the symbolism will all be perfect. For the game has worshipped at his quick feet, marveled at his feats and been amused by that tongue sticking out under the askew cap for 23 seasons, since Maddux's moralistic debut with the Chicago Cubs. Moralistic? He went 2-4 that September 1986 as a 20-year-old, then 6-14 in his first full season the next year. And wouldn't have another losing season until on the approach to his 40th birthday. So the moral was, invest in your pitching education, without the distraction of instant gratification. The payoff will come. "The best way to learn and get better is to screw up," he said Monday, "and not do it again." When the results kicked in, they were spectacular. The core of his career -- between that internship and the nomadic twilight actually distorted by ill support -- was as brilliant as there ever was. From 1988 through mid-2005, Maddux went 304-160, spicing the bland routine of never winning fewer than 15 with some spectacular peaks. He launched an unprecedented streak of four straight Cy Young Awards with his only two 20-win seasons in 1992-93 -- and, incredibly, kept pitching at that level even after getting knocked off the Cy throne by Randy Johnson's own four-peat. From 1992 through 2000, a nine-year span which partially paralleled baseball's evolution into an offense-dominated game, Maddux bucked the tide by going 155-71 with an ERA of 2.40. While the McGwires and Sosas were leading the long-ball abuse of other pitchers, Maddux was surrendering an average of 11 homers in those years. Like grand masters leaning over actual chess boards, Maddux was always several moves ahead on baseball's virtual squares. That set him up for always making the appropriate pitch to the ideal location, and with it getting the predictable result. "Greg Maddux could put a baseball through a life saver if you asked him," said Joe Morgan, who completed his Hall of Fame career as a second baseman before Maddux hit the scene, but has admired him from the ESPN broadcast booth. Leo Mazzone, the pitching coach throughout Maddux's entire 1993-2003 ride with the Atlanta Braves, called him "the smartest pitcher I've ever seen." "He's the greatest pitcher I've ever seen," Mazzone elaborated. "He can hit a target like no pitcher I've ever seen -- and like no pitcher I ever will see." Twelve times, Maddux worked 200-plus innings while issuing fewer than 35 unintentional walks. As he got older, his control got better, going from merely fantastic to stupefying, as he began throwing with time-fed confidence. Of his 822 career unintentional walks, more than half (430) came in his first seven seasons, meaning in the last 15 years and 3,299 innings, he issued a total of 392 walks. Phenomenal. Merely looking at such numbers gives one the chills. Imagine what it felt like to watch his poetry in motion. "You watch Greg Maddux, that's an art," said Juan Pierre, a latter-day teammate of his with the '06 Cubs and the '08 Dodgers. "It's just amazing what he does because he's not throwing 94, 93 mph." Doing much more with far less always was the beauty of Maddux. He didn't awe you with the method, but with the results. And with the depth of his knowledge and understanding of a game considered beyond total grasp. Maddux came closer than anyone to disproving the idea that no one can learn everything there is about baseball. The one belief that he could not contradict is: This is an easy game to leave. Maddux had as tough a time conceding the end of the line as anyone -- although his final line belied his mastery to the end. "So many things go on that have nothing to do with the first-through-ninth innings. And I will miss it all," he said. His swan season, mostly with the Padres and winding up with the Dodgers, was numerically his poorest since that 6-14 in the starter's block 21 years earlier. But included in the 8-13 record was a career-long winless streak of 14 starts from May 10 through July 23 during which the Padres scored a total of 33 runs with him on the mound. Nothing for which to apologize. Especially when one digests this amazing fact: Of the previous 15 pitchers whose 300-win careers ended in the post-1800s era, none had as many as eight wins in their farewell season. Not Cy Young, not Walter Johnson, not Warren Spahn nor anyone else you care to try. As Greg Maddux would say, "Didn't know that. Cool."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.