- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
- 0 Shares
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- From the moment Greg Maddux threw his final big league pitch in 2008, he was sure to be a welcome addition to someone's staff as a consultant, adviser or coach. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of pitching and a natural feel for his craft, so no detail escapes his notice. And those 355 wins and four Cy Young Awards guarantee that pitchers will be at rapt attention whenever he has information to share.
So it came as no surprise when the Chicago Cubs (the team that drafted Maddux) snatched him up as a special assistant prior to the 2010 season. And when Maddux was ready to leave the organization after the team fired general manager Jim Hendry last fall, several clubs were intrigued. The Texas Rangers could have wooed him with barbecue, Dallas Cowboys season tickets or a pep talk from club president Nolan Ryan, but they opted for something nearer and dearer to his heart: In the end, it all came down to brotherly love.
"Thirty teams would love to have him on a part-time basis,'' says Mike Maddux, Rangers pitching coach and Greg's brother. "But I kind of thought we were in a position of power for recruiting purposes. It was a no-brainer.''
After year of fielding an inept pitching staff that kept them in the cellar of the American League West, the Rangers have now won two straight pennants on the strength of an elite offense and effective pitching staff -- and they're still not satisfied. The club signed right-hander Yu Darvish out of Japan in January, locked up southpaw Derek Holland for five years and $28 million last week and are making a concerted effort to convert closer Neftali Feliz to a starter this spring.
At the center of it all you'll find Dave and Linda Maddux's two boys, trading pitching theories, spitballing ideas and having fun in a quintessentially American, backyard-pickup-game kind of way.
It's been a dream reunion for the Madduxes, who combine the intellect of the Coen brothers with the sophomoric humor of the Farrellys. Several years ago, when David Wells was describing Greg Maddux's understated flair for gross-out gags, he referred to Maddux as the "silent scumbag."
Through the years, teammates learned to exercise caution before digging into the clubhouse chili or sitting in the whirlpool bath if Maddux had just left the scene. You get the drift.
"We have our kicks,'' says Greg, dryly.
Mike also declines to address specifics, but confirms that Greg and their father, Dave, never tire of the classic "pull my finger'' gag.
But things get more serious in the dugout and around the batting cage, where their fingerprints are evident all over camp.
You can see it in the approach of veteran reliever Joe Nathan, who's tinkering with a changeup and thinking two or three pitches ahead more than he ever has in 11 big league seasons. Early in camp Nathan threw a live batting practice with Greg Maddux standing behind him, and he was stunned at how fresh and insightful Maddux's observations were.
"I wish I had an earpiece in my ear so he could tell me what pitch I should throw during a game," Nathan says.
Matt Harrison, a 14-game winner last season, has also benefited from the new dynamic. Harrison, a left-hander, had become conditioned to relying solely on his fastball when he wanted to pitch inside against righties. Then Mike Maddux showed him the value of using his entire repertoire to both sides of the plate. Greg took the concept a step further this spring, positioning Harrison's body in a way that allowed him to cut loose with his two-seamer against righties rather than try to steer it to a specific spot.
"If you throw it over the middle, so be it,'' Harrison says. "It's moving, and more times than not you're going to get a guy to just roll over it.''
During a recent interview, Mike Maddux went to great lengths to point out that pitching is a collaborative effort in Texas -- that coaches Andy Hawkins, Terry Clark, Danny Clark, Jeff Andrews and Brad Holman all have significant input in the organizational game plan. But when Ryan is roaming the premises and Greg Maddux is on board as a special assistant to the general manager, their Hall of Fame cachet is bound to set them apart from the crowd.
"I think if you go to every manager and coach in baseball, they say the same things,'' Mike says. "A lot of times, it's how you say it or who says it. If Greg or Nolan says something, you can bet them boys got their ears open.''
Bonding through baseball
The reunion this spring marks the first time the Madduxes have worn the same uniform since 1987, when they played winter ball together in Venezuela. But their pitching philosophies are forever rooted in the teachings of Ralph Meder, who stressed the importance of fastball command, movement and changing speeds during their formative years at Hadland Park in Las Vegas.
Vegas was just one stop in a world tour for the Maddux family. Dave spent more than two decades in the Air Force, and Mike was born in Dayton, Ohio, and lived in Taiwan as a toddler. Greg came on the scene in 1963 in San Angelo, Texas, and the family made subsequent stops in North Dakota, California and Madrid, Spain, before settling in Indiana during the Vietnam War.
While the baseball world knows Greg Maddux as "Mad Dog" or "The Professor," he has a different designation within the family. As a kindergartener, Greg brought home a workbook that asked him to identify several fruits. Next to a picture of a banana, he wrote "This is a banana." Beside an illustration of an apple, he wrote "This is an apple." And at the bottom of the page, when he was asked to write his name, it listed the sample name "Nat Yates." So he diligently wrote "My name is Nat Yates."
Nat quickly morphed into Nate, and as Mike points out, "He's been 'Nate' ever since to us."
For two military brats looking to acclimate, an aptitude for sports is a great recipe for acceptance. Mike was five years older, but the brothers always found ways to even out the odds. In Nerf basketball, Mike would play from his knees. And when the game was home run-or-nothing, Mike would hit from the backstop while Greg swung away from second base.
I was a little hesitant to talk to [Greg] at first, but once I spoke to him about pitching, he was so open and down to earth. For him, it's all about the mindset of finding a way to win.
”-- Rangers pitcher Matt Harrison
The brothers share countless stories of a mischievous past. In the late 1960s their grandfather caught a foul ball that Cincinnati Reds outfielder Vada Pinson hit off Juan Marichal at Crosley Field. He inscribed the details on the sweet spot, and the boys treated the souvenir with the proper respect until their stockpile of baseballs was bare.
"It was a trophy, but to us it was an opportunity," Mike says. "We used it, and then we taped it up and stuck it back in the drawer like we didn't use it. I just wonder how many times we had Mickey Mantle flipping in our [bicycles'] spokes."
Mike was the family trailblazer. The Reds picked him in the 36th round of the 1979 draft, but he chose to attend the University of Texas at El Paso. He signed with the Philadelphia Phillies three years later as a fifth-round pick, and spent the better part of 15 seasons churning out thankless innings in middle relief.
When Mike's professional odyssey was complete, he had appeared in 472 games with nine teams. But he would always be the Maddux who made it to professional ball first. When Greg signed with the Cubs as a second-round pick in 1984, Mike's experiences served as an educational primer for the family.
"Everything he was experiencing was something I wanted to experience," Greg says. "It was kind of nice to have that perspective or outlook or inside information -- however you want to say it. It helped me when I signed. I was getting ready to go through Rookie ball and 'A' ball, and he had just been through Rookie ball and 'A' ball. He was always a step or two ahead of me."
On the same page
After 12 seasons as a successful pitching coach in Milwaukee and Texas, Mike has that "future manager" buzz around him. He was a candidate for the Boston Red Sox managerial job before backing out last winter, and also appeared on the Cubs' radar during their offseason search. Contrary to reports, Mike maintains that he never removed himself from consideration in Chicago -- that he simply lost out to Dale Sveum.
Greg Maddux, despite his lofty pedigree, is fully aware that he is in Texas' camp to reinforce his older brother's message. Even though Greg has taken a more hands-on approach as spring training has progressed, he does it in a quiet, understated, almost nondescript way.
"We put these guys on a pedestal sometimes and forget that they're normal human beings," Harrison says. "I was a little hesitant to talk to him at first, but once I spoke to him about pitching, he was so open and down to earth. For him, it's all about the mindset of finding a way to win. There's a reason he won 350 games.''
Greg's involvement with the Rangers this season will be primarily from a distance. He plans to return home to Las Vegas after spring training, and will make assorted trips or go on scouting missions at the behest of GM Jon Daniels. If he's watching a game on TV and something catches his eye, he'll fire off a text or call Mike or one of the organizational higher-ups.
Greg Maddux and his wife, Kathy, have a 14-year-old son, Satchel Chase, and an 18-year-old daughter, Amanda Paige (note the homage to history), and he is not ready to embrace the idea of being away from his family for weeks and months at a time. If he ultimately decides to become a pitching coach down the road, the insights he has gleaned from Mike this spring will be filed away for future reference.
"I have a chance to watch and learn and see how he organizes spring training and interacts with his pitchers," Greg says. "The things he's teaching, I'm going to go back to Vegas and teach 14-year-olds when I get home. There's a lot to be learned and a lot to be passed down. At same time, you get a chance to do it with your brother and enjoy baseball. It's really good for me."
Whether the pitcher-batter confrontation is playing out in Arlington, Texas, or the back fields in Arizona, the same lessons apply. The Maddux brothers are joined by their love of a simple game and each other. And the best part is, they no longer have to worry about running out of baseballs.