The mentor to the Professor
Editor's note: Gene Wojciechowski, senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, moved from his suburban Chicago home to an apartment 4½ blocks from Wrigley Field all to chronicle the 2004 Chicago Cubs, and those who live and die with the franchise. His book, "Cubs Nation: 162 Games, 162 Stories, 1 Addiction" (Doubleday), will be available April 12.
2004 background: Leo Mazzone and Greg Maddux were together longer than a Kia warranty. During their 11 seasons in Atlanta (Mazzone is still the pitching coach there), Maddux won 194 regular season games, a World Series ring, 10 Gold Gloves, and ensured himself a Cooperstown address. Then Maddux returned to his original team, the Cubs. When the signing became official Mazzone called Maddux and said, "Thanks for some of the greatest pitching over a period of time we've ever seen in our lives."
Maybe it was just coincidence, but Mazzone always seemed to sway on the bench a little less when Maddux was pitching. There was something comforting and assuring about Maddux. Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan once said Maddux could put a baseball "through a Life Saver if you asked him." But Maddux's gift, says Mazzone, goes beyond a magical right arm.
"He could predict where guys were going to hit the ball," says Mazzone. "One time we were going to put a runner on first, intentionally walk him with runners on second and third. So [manager] Bobby Cox went out to the mound because he wanted to see what Mad Dog wanted to do. Maddux said, 'Give me two pitches. If I go ball two, I'll put him on. But I think I can get him to pop up to third base.'
"And guess what? He popped up to third base on the second pitch."
Maddux won four consecutive Cy Youngs, his first with the Cubs in 1992 (at which point the Cubs waved good-bye), and then three straight with the Braves. It was during that run with near perfection that Maddux got, well, bored.
"Leo," he would tell Mazzone, "you haven't been out to the mound to see me for a couple of months."
"Well, there's nothing going on," Mazzone would say.
"OK, I'll look in during the sixth inning and you come out and pay me a visit. Sometimes it gets lonely out there. I need somebody to talk to other than the catcher."
Sure enough, Maddux nodded for Mazzone in the sixth inning.
"So I went out," says Mazzone. "Just to visit."
Maddux's last victory for the Braves was Sept. 28, 2003, vs. Philadelphia. He won, 5-2. Afterward, he presented the ball to Mazzone.
"Here, Leo, I want you to have this. It's my 300th win."
"Wait a minute," said Mazzone, "that's 289."
"No, that's my 289th regular-season win, but I've got 11 postseason wins, too. Eleven and 289 is 300."
Those 11 postseason victories don't count, "but they should," says Mazzone.
Mazzone will read every Maddux pitching line this season. He'll root for his old friend because he knows his old friend roots for him and the Braves except three days in April and three days in October, when the Cubs and Atlanta face each other. And whenever it happens, Mazzone will be in Cooperstown when Maddux is inducted into the Hall of Fame.
There's only one Mazzone requirement.
"He better have a Braves uniform on."