Commentary

An error of Hall-of-Fame proportions

In long history of Cubs blunders, losing Greg Maddux to Braves one of biggest

Updated: January 8, 2014, 8:27 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- They tried to rectify the mistake in his later years. They tried to bring it all back full circle.

But Greg Maddux, the man who lived a life on the mound staying down and away, was the one that got up and away from the Cubs.

For all the bad poetry written about that dusty trade of Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio, Maddux for Nada beats that deal like a 3-2 changeup on the lower corner.

Even the best pitcher of a generation, maybe any generation, couldn't beat bad management, the true curse of the Chicago Cubs.

And when the Cubs tried to exorcise the Maddux jinx, they wound up executing a true Cubs collapse in 2004. Of course, that disappointment of a finish wasn't his fault -- he was the durable one at 38 -- maybe it just wasn't meant to be.

Maddux came up as a 20-year-old for the Cubs and left as a 26-year-old Cy Young winner. It was in Atlanta where he became a Hall of Famer.

Maddux was elected to the Hall of Fame on Wednesday by 97.2 percent of the ballots cast by the Baseball Writers Association of America. Who knows what the 16 journalists who didn't vote him in on the first ballot were thinking?

There is nothing I can say about Maddux that hasn't been said by those who played with him or those who covered him in his prime. He was brilliant, the archetype of the word "pitcher."

[+] EnlargeGreg Maddux
Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty ImagesGreg Maddux earned his first Cy Young award for his 1992 season with the Cubs, when he won 20 games.

I saw Maddux in person toward the end with the Cubs and later, the Padres, when the paunch was a little more pronounced and the fastball was more daring than fast. He could still change speeds and work patterns that fooled hitters.

Thomas Boswell, a columnist for the Washington Post, recently described an old story of watching Maddux pitch in spring training one season and how the pitcher compared himself to his father, who dealt blackjack after retiring from the Air Force. Maddux learned at an early age how casinos always wound up ahead because they had the odds in their favor. And that's how he pitched.

"I am the house," he explained to Boswell.

For a few years in Atlanta, he was all but unhittable. In 53 starts in the strike-shortened seasons of 1994-95, he gave up 73 earned runs.

I don't feel saccharine to note Maddux was nothing less than a gift to baseball fans. A craftsman, a jewel thief, and a magician rolled into an accountant's body. He wasn't imposing like the mean-mugging fastball/breaking ball merchants that typified his era.

No, he was Clark Kent without a secret identity.

Cubs fans still adore Maddux, despite the messy exit that saw him leave Chicago for Atlanta after winning the first of four straight Cy Young awards. In 1992, he went 20-11 with a 2.18 ERA. His ERA was between 2.95 and 3.46 in his previous four full seasons.

Can you imagine the backlash if that happened today? It wouldn't happen, of course. In today's market, Maddux wouldn't have been a free agent that early. He would've been locked up early, probably after the 1989 season, if not 1988.

Then-general manager Larry Himes, one of the all-time nefarious names in Cubs history, gave Maddux a competitive offer, but he couldn't close the deal to keep the first-time free agent and Atlanta swooped in with a late offer and the promise of a winning team. Himes treated Maddux like a very good pitcher, rather than a future legend.

It was that kind of ordinary thinking that kept this major-market team a minor factor all those years.

"It came down to dollars and cents," Himes told the Chicago Tribune in 2004 as Maddux prepared to pitch for the Cubs again as a 38-year-old. "His agent and Greg felt he wasn't getting enough money from the Cubs. And I felt we had already reached the maximum dollar. . . . That's where it lay. . . . He turned it down."

Whatever happened -- in 1992, Maddux told the Tribune he wanted to return but the Cubs didn't return his advances as the Braves out-paced the Yankees in late negotiations -- it was for the best.

If he stayed in Chicago, he wouldn't have worked with the great Leo Mazzone, who got the more finished product helped along by the Cubs' Dick Pole. He wouldn't have pitched with fellow 2014 Hall of Famer Tom Glavine, or John Smoltz or Steve Avery. He wouldn't have been uplifted by the then-best organization in baseball. No, he needed to be a Brave.

If he stayed, he would've been a Cub. And maybe he would've lifted the Cubs to unseen heights. Maybe his influence would have changed the direction of the franchise. Imagine if he had worked with Kerry Wood early in his career? Cubs history is full of maybes.

"I didn't realize how much of an influence he had on the older pitchers," Himes told the Tribune. "I thought the older pitchers on our staff were a good influence on him. It was the other way around."

Maddux would stay in Atlanta for 11 years, highlighted by winning a World Series and three of his four straight Cy Young Awards from 1992 through 1995. When he rejoined the Cubs in 2004 it helped make them a trendy World Series pick a year after their epic collapse in the National League Championship Series. He started 90 games in his second tour of duty, racking up a 4.27 ERA, which is very respectable for a pitcher aged 38-40, but more than a run over his career average. In typical Maddux form, he only walked 92 hitters in 574 innings and 11 of those were intentional.

All told, he was 133-112 with a 3.61 ERA as a Cub. He started 298 games for Chicago, and threw 2,016 innings. That got his number retired, more out of nostalgia than anything.

Despite his first departure, Maddux remained the favorite athlete of thousands, maybe tens of thousands of Chicago fans.

Barry Bonds left the Pittsburgh Pirates that same year as a pariah. But who could hate Maddux?

Reporters love to ask Maddux why he was so great, and his quick answer was always the same. It was his Zen-like devotion to living "down and away." He practiced his craft and he honed his simple approach to the game. But in truth he was one-of-a-kind.

He had a good arm, much better than he's given credit for because of the muted aesthetics of his pitches. But it was his intellect, his command and his attention to detail that made him a legend among his peers.

You want to know why guys loaded up on steroids during Maddux's heyday? Because of guys like Maddux, who did it naturally.

While every hitter has a story about sliders and changeups, every teammate has a story about Maddux calling pitches from the bench, predicting fastballs with an oracle's accuracy. He was extremely generous with his knowledge of baseball, serving as a de facto pitching coach in his later years, before working as a consultant for the Cubs and Rangers. He was also a famous prankster in clubhouses, though many of those stories aren't fit for a family website.

When Maddux returned to Wrigley as a San Diego Padre, a year after his second stint with the Cubs ended with a late-season trade to the Dodgers, I was there in the visitors' clubhouse when Maddux was asked what he expected upon his return to the mound at Wrigley.

"Hopefully, I expect to be 0-1 and go from there," he said. That's what worked for him. That's why he's a Hall of Famer and one of the best pitchers who ever lived.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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