05/04/2007 11:49 AM ET
Maddux pitches wisdom with Padres
By Jon Greenberg / MLBPLAYERS.com
With 335 wins and counting, Greg Maddux has been called "the professor" for his cerebral approach to the game, and he's beginning to look the part. The simple, round-framed glasses were put away when he had laser eye surgery, but his temples are beginning to grow gray and crow's feet surround eyes that have sought catcher's mitts for two decades of Major League Baseball.
Right-hander Greg Maddux has won 335 games in his 22-year career. (Chris Park/AP)
At 41, Maddux isn't the oldest pitcher on the Padres staff. That would be David Wells, who turns 44 this May. But neither Wells, nor San Diego's living-legend closer, Trevor Hoffman -- perhaps not even their new manager, former pitcher Bud Black -- understands pitching any better than Maddux.
Since leaving Atlanta before the 2004 season, the four-time Cy Young Award winner has been billed as a combination end-of-the-rotation, 300-game winner, and on-the-job pitching coach. The only active 300-game winner, Maddux is on his third team since leaving the Braves, and each (the Chicago Cubs and the Los Angeles Dodgers are the others) has welcomed the wisdom he can impart on young pitchers almost as much as his skill and experience.
In addition to the 2-2 record and 3.86 ERA Maddux carried through his first five starts for the Padres, the club's young pitchers were beginning to take advantage of the future Hall of Famer's sagacity, which is usually delivered in small doses with a sharp, dry wit and a self-deprecating style that leaves an understudy at ease.
"He's definitely a wealth of knowledge. The professor, man," said Kevin Cameron, a Rule 5 Draft reliever. "He knows his stuff. It sneaks up on you the way he watches a game. You don't think he's paying attention, but he's able to recall any pitch, any situation. He'll tell you how it moved, maybe what the pitcher should've done or where he was thinking about locating.
"The other day we're sitting in LA, it was the day after I pitched. We're sitting on the bench watching the game and he taps the guy next to him and says, 'Watch, there's going to be a ball turned right here.' There was a lefty hitting and 'There will be a ball turned over here, so heads up.' No kidding, the next pitch, there's a ball hit in the dugout. What does he have, a Jedi mind trick? It was unbelievable. He just had a sly little smile."
There are scores of stories in this vein. Maddux is known for being able to pick up and recollect the fleeting moments of a game that is repeated 162 times a season. So the seat next to him is always filled. The guy can draw a crowd without saying a word.
"You can't help but pick something up from him, talking with him and sitting next to him at a ballgame," said Black, the first-year manager. "We've encouraged our pitchers to do that, guys like Clay Hensley, Jake Peavy and Chris young. We tell them to sit with him during a game and watch. Greg has said he picks up more from watching a game than from video or scouting reports or anything."
Young, a 6-foot-10 No. 2 starter starter behind Jake Peavy, has enjoyed being around the future Hall of Famer, whom he has called a "role model."
"He definitely sees things a little differently than other players," said the Princeton grad. "The game comes to him easier maybe through his intuition. He's extremely intelligent and can recognize situations and then point to them. I'm sure that's what makes him a great pitcher on the mound."
But Maddux isn't just in San Diego (he signed a two-year deal in the offseason) to tutor neophytes and be closer to his family in Las Vegas. Maddux can still pitch and his command remains impeccable. Through his first 30 1/3 innings, he had walked just four batters and given up one home run. Even with a decline in velocity over the years, he had 17 strikeouts.
"He hasn't altered his pitching style since I first saw him 20 years ago," Black said. "The velocity is not where it was, but he hasn't changed his style at all. And he still gets the results, the victories keeps coming."
Black spent most of his pitching and coaching career in the AL, but got to see Maddux as an opponent during a four-year stint with the Giants in the early '90s. He is more than happy to have him aboard for his first managing gig.
"I knew we had something the first day of Spring Training," Black said. "When the pitching coach (Darren Balsley) and I asked him if there's anything he needs, as far as doing what he's done in the past, to get into shape, whether it's a different throwing program or whatever, he goes, 'No. I want to do whatever the other guys are doing.'
"For a guy who has been where he's been to come to a new team and do whatever program we have set up ... he said what's good enough for them is good enough for me. It was awesome."
Maddux said he plans to fulfill both guaranteed years of his deal, at least, and would know when to retire by the results of his pitching. But that could be years away. He knows how to take care of himself and recent seasons, he suggests, have been less taxing on his arm.
"I feel better actually," he said. "I don't throw hard enough to hurt anymore."
Jon Greenberg is a freelance writer based in Chicago.