- Tim Keown, ESPN Senior Writer
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DISCLAIMER: What you are about to read is a story about grown men who should know better. It is included here as a means of illustrating the legend of one man and his unique place in baseball history. It should not be construed as an endorsement of the activity described, although we must admit it makes for a pretty cool story.
How many times had he heard someone say it? How many times over the past 22 years had some catcher or coach or broadcaster said, "Greg Maddux? I bet you could catch him with your eyes closed"? Sounded plausible enough, maybe coaxed a chuckle or two from the pitcher, but mostly it was just something to say. Nobody realized it was just a matter of time before somebody decided to prove it.
This was in mid-September, in the home bullpen at Petco Park. Maddux, the human metronome, kept going into his windup with the same hands-over-the-head motion he's used since he was a kid in Las Vegas. Pitch after pitch hit the mitt, wherever it was placed, like always. Padres bullpen catcher Ben Risinger, perhaps bored with the persistent perfection of it all, turned to bullpen coach Darrel Akerfelds and said, "I bet I could catch him with my eyes closed."
That was all fine and rhetorical until Akerfelds said, "Okay, let's go for it."
First, a system had to be put in place. It was quickly decided that Akerfelds would stand a few paces in front of the plate and to the side, so he could track the path of the ball and yell "Now!" to let Risinger know when to squeeze his mitt.
Risinger, a blocky Australian who spent some time in the minors, promised not to cheat. Maddux, despite his long-standing commitment to the pursuit of a good laugh, was lukewarm on the exercise, citing liability concerns. "I know I don't throw very hard anymore," he said, "but I'd like to think I can still hurt a guy who's not looking." His protestations were ignored. There are times when a legend must bend to the public's will, when the accumulated weight of transcendent talent forces him to display his gifts for the amusement of those less burdened. This, apparently, was one of those times. Risinger closed his eyes, and Maddux threw.
A catcher's mitt is roughly 33 inches in circumference. To be caught, the ball must hit an area that is roughly one-third the size of the mitt. A regulation major league baseball has a diameter of roughly 2.9 inches. We're not talking about throwing a strike here; we're talking about hitting the palm of a hand from 60 feet 6 inches away. You can do the math, or just take Risinger's word for it: "He's the only guy I'd even come close to trusting with my eyes closed."
The first pitch glanced off the top of Risinger's mitt and hit him in the mask.
"That's enough," Maddux said, walking off the mound.
"One more," Risinger said.
The second pitch hit Risinger square in the pocket, but something went awry. Either Akerfelds' "Now!" was too late or Risinger's mitt squeeze was too slow. The ball dropped at his feet.
"That's enough," Maddux said.
"One more," Risinger said. "Please?"
Maddux wound up and threw. By now, pitching coach Darren Balsley was watching, along with a few other Padres who had received word that a strange experiment was taking place involving a catcher attempting to catch without the benefit of vision. The ball left Maddux's hand, and Akerfelds yelled "Now!" and Risinger clenched his mitt around the ball.
He opened his eyes. There it was, in the mitt.
Arms were raised in celebration. It was a beautifully stupid scene. Risinger laughed so hard he fell down. Akerfelds was doubled over, laughing to the point of tears. Maddux looked on with a wry smile, shaking his head.
"One of the most amazing things I've ever seen," said Akerfelds, who is 45 years old.
And so it was proved, once and for all: You really can catch Greg Maddux with your eyes closed.
DISCLAIMER: Greg Maddux is quoted in this story saying exceedingly humble things. You are under no obligation to believe them. You are encouraged to believe in the spirit of the words—Maddux is almost obsessively self-deprecating—but that does not make them true. And when he says, "Whenever you've had a little success in this game, people think you know more than you do," don't believe that one at all.
This is the kind of guy Maddux is: When he plays poker on planes with teammates, they believe he knows what's in their hands from looking at their faces. Even if he doesn't know, they think he does, which serves the same purpose. Maddux has this weird pull over people. Had he opted to be a cult leader rather than a pitcher, he would have much land and many followers, most of whom would probably spend their days tending to his private golf course and/or rotating bottles of expensive cabernet in the cellar.
Inside the man's head resides the most comprehensive history of the most essential confrontation in sports: pitcher vs. hitter. Maddux sees things nobody else sees, senses things nobody else senses. The examples are legendary, almost mythical. He can speed-read a batter's stance—a little more open, a few inches up in the box—in the middle of his windup, allowing him to change his grip from changeup to fastball in the time it takes him to lift his leg. That's why, throughout his career, Maddux has steered clear of certain catchers, because they couldn't think fast enough to keep up with him. Padres catchers Josh Bard and Michael Barrett will sometimes go an entire game without giving him a sign. A little tap on the thigh for location is all that's necessary.
Entering the 2008 season, two weeks shy of his 42nd birthday (April 14), Maddux had 347 wins—seven behind Roger Clemens' 354, and 16 behind Warren Spahn's 363, the most wins by a pitcher since baseball erased the color line. He is the sport's quiet electrical hum, a guy who continues to win games—at least 13 a season for the past 20 years, for the Cubs, the Braves, the Cubs again, the Dodgers and now the Padres—despite yielding organically to the muscle-dwindling effects of middle age.
The Rangers' Josh Hamilton, who spent last season with the Reds, says Maddux was by far his toughest at-bat. "He never throws anything the same speed," says Hamilton, who went 0-for-3 against the old guy. "One pitch moves this way, one moves the other. The radar gun says it's going slow, but it doesn't feel that way in the batter's box. It drives you crazy."
Padres manager Bud Black says Maddux "has the best feel for how to throw a pitch and when to throw it of anybody, maybe ever." Which prompts Maddux to shrug his unimposing shoulders and trot out the mantra "Whenever you've had a little success in this game, people think you know more than you do."
Right. But when Brad Penny and Maddux were teammates on the Dodgers, during the last two months of 2006, they had a conversation one day that led Penny to reach a stunning conclusion: This guy knows my stuff better than I do. It was eerie, really, how easily Maddux dissected Penny's repertoire and suggested ways to maximize it. Penny, figuring he'd take advantage of the situation, asked Maddux to call a game for him against the Cubs. And so, on the night of Sept. 13, Penny glanced into the dugout before every delivery and found Maddux, who signaled the next pitch by looking toward different parts of the ballpark. Penny threw seven scoreless innings with no walks and beat the Cubs 6-0. "Maddux probably won't tell you that story," Penny says. He's right.
DISCLAIMER: Maddux wants nothing to do with the Maddux-as-genius discussion. In fact, if the topic veers toward the mythical nature of his achievements, the look on his face turns from mild surprise to abject befuddlement. When his eyes ask, "Who, me?" you know the answer: Yes, him.
In person, Maddux is kind of goofy, with a double-chinned, slack-jawed look of wonder that must be a put-on. Maybe this is the way of the genius, or the savant. Did Caravaggio have to explain every brushstroke? Would it have diminished his achievements if he did? Greg's older brother, Mike, pitching coach for the Brewers, becomes defensive when asked about Greg's reticence, saying, "Magicians don't tell everyone their tricks, do they? I bet David Copperfield would be a tough interview too."
Self-reflection is not a priority. Maddux has spent his adult life in the eternal childhood of the big league clubhouse. There's no other place on earth quite like it. One morning this spring in Peoria, Ariz., he sat at his corner locker with a plate of bacon and eggs on his lap, talking about pitching. He was running some sort of low-stakes golf pool out of the corner of his eye, passing out papers and collecting money without turning his head. At one point, in midsentence and without warning, he winced like a man about to pass a stone, lifted his left cheek off the chair and let loose. "Whoa, wow, sorry about that," he said, then continued with the eggs and the discussion and the golf pool. So add that to the Maddux scouting report: bats right, throws right, farts left.
A great old scout named Doug McMillan, who used to work the Western states, shot a grainy video of a 19-year-old Maddux throwing on some field. In the clip, Maddux is wearing high socks, a foam-front cap and tiny gym shorts, but he's throwing the exact same way he throws today. You can't see his face, but if you've watched baseball at all over the past 20 years, you'll see this 3.5-second video and immediately say, "Maddux." As Greg says, "I was fortunate to have some success early, so nobody tried to change me." Typically modest, typically Maddux.
Part of the legend concerns a man named Ralph Medar, a scout who'd retired and moved to Vegas to get a handle on his allergies. Medar started a series of invitation-only pickup games for the best prep players in the area. He coached Mike and Greg Maddux as well as Mike Morgan, who retired in 2002, after 22 seasons. That's a combined 60 years of big league pitching experience. Medar (who died before Greg graduated from high school) taught them all the value of movement over velocity, how to shield the ball behind their gloves to hide grips and how sometimes a 57-foot curveball is the best pitch in the world. "We bought into it," Greg says. "One of the first questions we used to ask was 'Is my ball sinking, or is it just running?' Now all they ask is, 'Did I throw 92 or 94?'"
Greg got to play in Medar's games when he was 13 or 14. Pro scouts and college coaches started calling and showing up at the Maddux house during Mike's senior year. As one of the scouts was leaving one night, the boys' father, Dave Maddux, shook the guy's hand and said, "You'll be back for the little one."
You'll be back for the little one. How great is that?
Maybe it was during those pickup games that Greg learned how to pick up a hitter's tendencies and take advantage of them. Watch him on the mound, how he throws the ball to a spot and hops to the right or the left on his follow-through because he knows that's the direction the ball should go if everything works as it should. He is a master of tendencies, sure, but his approach is rooted in an intuitive understanding of physics and geometry. As former Cub and current teammate Mark Prior says, "I don't know what it is, but he just knows. Nobody else knows the way he knows."
Prior is one of several Padres pitchers—Jake Peavy and Chris Young are also among them—who appreciate Maddux's willingness to fill in the gaps in their experience. It seems to be a generational thing. Mike Maddux calls the young American pitchers coming up through the Brewers' system "academy kids" because they were taught to play by micromanaging coaches on travel-ball teams where the fields were always perfect and the drills always robotic. "All they've been taught is how to take instruction," Mike says. "We were taught how to play the game."
One day last summer, Greg called reliever Heath Bell into the film room. The Padres were playing the Cardinals, and Maddux wanted Bell to see something he'd picked up from a St. Louis hitter.
"I can't do it, but with your stuff, you can throw your fastball inside and handle this guy," Maddux told him. Bell started to answer, "But the scouting report says … "
"I don't care about the scouting report," Maddux said. "I'm saying your fastball can get this guy out."
After relaying the story, Bell says, "I listened. I got him out. Maddux knows best."
With the Cubs, the story goes, Maddux once sat in the dugout and watched José Hernández of the Dodgers set up in the batter's box. After two pitches, Maddux turned to the guys around him and said, "We might have to call an ambulance for the first base coach." On the next pitch, Hernández whipped a shot that hit first base coach John Shelby in the chest.
"He does that all the time," Bell says. "He'll say, 'Get ready to duck,' and two seconds later, here comes the ball."
Maddux waves it all off, of course. "I daydream just like everybody else," he says. "I just do it with my body facing the field, so everybody thinks I'm paying attention."
At some point, probably soon, Maddux will be gone, and all of this will leave with him. He has told some teammates that this is his final season, which means no run at Grover Cleveland Alexander and Christy Mathewson, who are tied at 373, and no crazy notions about joining Cy Young and Walter Johnson in the 400-win club. "I'm not going to be one of those guys who pretends it's going to be easy to walk away," he says. "It's going to be hard, really hard."
Last year, during a series at Dodger Stadium, Maddux and Bell had a conversation while shagging balls during batting practice. Bell said something casually to Maddux about the hours he'd spent over 22 years in the big leagues doing that very thing—shagging balls and tossing them back to the bucket man behind second base. "You know," Maddux said, "I really should retire."
Bell, unsure if he was entering into a conversation of historical importance, stayed quiet. What was he supposed to say, really? But then, after a pause, Maddux picked up another ball and said, "Nah. Then I'd go home and do what?"
Relieved, Bell agreed, saying, "How could you leave this?" And together they laughed the whole thing off.
Think Maddux is a mad genius? Check out this update from Senior Writer Tim Keown: 17%
Greg Maddux is always in control, even when it doesn't look that way. He'll take his secrets with him when he retires, so catch him while you can.