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Goodbye, Greg

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As you probably already know, Greg Maddux is retiring today. He hasn't pitched in a Braves uniform since 2003 (and that was the bizarre episode where he surprised Schuerholz by accepting arbitration, giving us a payroll shock and forcing Schuerholz to trade away Kevin Millwood). He's been more or less a league-average innings eater since he left, and he's hanging up his spikes after his first season with single-digit wins in 21 years.

He was perhaps the greatest right-handed pitcher of the postwar era. (For Rob Neyer, the only other pitcher in the conversation is Clemens. Considering where Clemens's career was in his early 30s, when he got run out of Boston, and the way he padded his career at the end with the greatest seasons ever pitched by a juiced-up 40 year old, I feel fairly confident giving the edge to Maddux.) But he'll probably be remembered, as Gene Wojciechowski does, for what he wasn't.

He didn't start his career with the Braves and he didn't end it with the Braves -- really, of all the Braves' biggest stars of the past 20 years, Dale Murphy, Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Dave Justice, Ron Gant, Rafael Furcal, Brian McCann, Maddux is the only one who didn't start his career in a Braves uniform. After he left us, he played for the Cubs, the Dodgers, and the Padres, and went from a decadelong mainstay in the Braves' rotation to frequent deadline trade bait.

He wasn't a flamethrower. The Maddux we've watched the past 5 years, the league-average one, looks so much like the old one that it's hard to remember exactly how the old one dominated. As Joe Posnanski described his arsenal, "Maddux threw his fastball in the upper 80s, sometimes a little faster, often a little slower. He had a change-up that tumbled, a cutter that backed lefties off the plate (and was called for strikes against infuriated righties), a curveball that had nothing to it."

Maddux's stuff may not have been jaw-dropping, but his command was. He had an instinctive understanding of how to apply pressure with his fingers on the ball to reduce or add speed, to control the precise late movement on each of his pitches for which he became so famous. His balls darted like knuckleballs, except that he knew exactly where they were going. He wound up with 3371 strikeouts along the way, but his MO was pitching to contact, and he had a career BABIP of .286, which means that it really is possible for a pitcher to keep his BABIP under .300 -- if he's Greg Maddux.

He didn't look like an Olympian; his body wasn't sculpted. And because he didn't give firebreathing quotes to the press, many people didn't realize the depth of his competitive spirit, or the infectious joy of his sheer love of the game. When Tom Verducci asked him what was the best part of baseball, he answered,
Everything. Winning is an absolute blast. Getting a hit is an absolute blast. Standing up there and getting a hit off somebody is one of the funnest things you can ever do... Watching a game every day. I don't mind watching a game every day. Talking baseball ... Some guys just show up on Tuesday. The best part is knowing you're going to do something on Monday and actually doing it on Tuesday. And executing it. You know what? It might be a strike. It might be a foul ball. You might think, If I throw this guy this pitch, he's going to hit it foul right over there, and then to go out there and do it, that's pretty cool. To me. That's fun. You're only talking about 10 pitches a game. The other 80 or 90 you're trusting what you see and what you feel. It's still fun playing the game. And strike three is still one of the funnest pitches in baseball.
For a guy who likes to use the word "funnest" a lot, his most frequent epithet among sportswriters was "the smartest pitcher in baseball," or, sometimes, "the smartest pitcher who ever lived." In a story Leo Mazzone loves to tell, Maddux overruled the Braves' official scouting report on Bernie Williams in the 1996 World Series, saying in a team meeting, "That's not right. I've been watching film of Williams for two weeks." "Well, then the hell with this report," Mazzone replied. "We go with what Mad Dog says."

I don't need to go into why he was good, or just how good he was; his hardware is so numerous it can practically be seen from space. At his peak, he was insanely dominant (as Joe Posnanski points out, 191 ERA+ from 1992-1998 -- no, really), and for another decade and a half he was somewhere between solid and terrific. He set an all-time record, which will probably never be broken, with 17 straight seasons of 15 or more wins; he set an all-time record, which will probably never be broken, with 18 Gold Gloves. He was the first man to win 4 Cy Youngs in a row; that record was since tied by Randy Johnson, but it's hard to believe it will be surpassed.

He was a practical joker, a beloved teammate, and an encyclopedia of the game. If he wants to be a pitching coach like his brother, he'll find 30 teams eager for his services somewhere in their organization; if he wants to be a manager, he'll make it onto a fast track. He didn't retire at the top of his game, but he was a pretty good pitcher to the last. He was a baseball rat, a guy who simply loved everything about the game, who made everyone around him better, who understood the game and the players in it at a level that few have ever touched. His ability was extraordinary, as was his intuition. (From Verducci: "There was the time he was in the dugout decoding the body language of Jose Hernandez of the Dodgers during an at-bat when he deadpanned to a teammate, 'Watch this. The first base coach may be going to the hospital.' On the next pitch Hernandez drilled a line drive off the chest of the first-base coach.")

He won, and he won for us. And he'll wear an A in Cooperstown.

I'll miss you, Greg. Don't be a stranger -- there'll always be a place for you in our dugout.

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